Cubs getting Zambrano's best at right time

ST. LOUIS -- Carlos Zambrano's head is in a nice, tranquil place these days. He recently told the Chicago Tribune that he's more relaxed since he changed his pregame routine and began preparing for starts by listening to the music of his good friend, contemporary Christian singer Marcos Witt.

Then again, this is the same Carlos Zambrano who once suffered a case of carpal tunnel syndrome from excessive e-mailing. In the old days, he might have been referred to as flaky or mercurial. Now that he's signed to a new five-year, $91.5 million deal, he has earned the right to be called "eccentric."

The Cubs couldn't care less about labels. Zambrano is their Johan Santana, their Jake Peavy, their C.C. Sabathia -- the man with the presence and stuff to be a difference maker when the pressure is high and the bats aren't clicking. And there's no better time for a starter to show he's ace-worthy than September, during the height of a pennant race.

On the same night Milwaukee's nominal No. 1, Ben Sheets, lasted just three innings in a loss to Cincinnati, Zambrano proved his mettle. He pitched eight innings of one-run ball; Daryle Ward contributed a bases-loaded, pinch-hit double; and the Cubs survived a scary outing from the bullpen to beat St. Louis 5-3 before a sellout crowd of 45,750 at Busch Stadium.

A week ago, it looked as if this series would be huge for both teams. Then St. Louis outfielder Rick Ankiel's life unraveled amid HGH revelations in the New York Daily News, and the Cardinals' season suddenly unraveled with it.

Let's put it this way: Bill Belichick, O.J. Simpson and Britney Spears all had better weeks than Ankiel and the Cardinals.

While Chicago leads Milwaukee by 1½ games in the nondescript NL Central, St. Louis' postseason aspirations were wheeled out of Busch Stadium on a stretcher Friday night. It was the eighth straight loss for the Cardinals, who should be more concerned with holding off Cincinnati for third place than with trying to catch the Cubs and Brewers at the top of the division.

Still, by virtue of their status as defending world champions and Chicago's blood rival, the Cardinals want to make life as difficult as possible for the Cubs. Problem is, they're trying to do it with a lineup that's too injured, too tired and too reminiscent of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds to put up runs consistently.

Scott Rolen, Chris Duncan and Juan Encarnacion are out with injuries. Albert Pujols told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his right leg is about 70 percent of full strength. Ankiel is 2-for-28 with nine strikeouts since the Daily News report. In the opener of the Cubs series, Skip Schumaker batted fifth and Scott Spiezio, just back from a stint in a substance abuse facility, hit sixth.

Zambrano has been up and down more than crude oil prices this year. When he went 5-4 with a 5.24 ERA in April and May, some observers speculated he was fretting about his stalled contract talks. Then he had a wonderful June and won the National League Pitcher of the Month Award in July, so that theory could be discounted.

Along the way, Zambrano duked it out with teammate Michael Barrett in the dugout and criticized Wrigley Field fans for booing him in a loss to the Dodgers, only to repent both times. He ranks 25th in the National League in ERA and leads the majors in apologies.

So which version of the "Big Z" would show up on this night? The very best one. Zambrano pounded his fastball and cutter for strikes early in the count, which made it tougher for the St. Louis hitters to lay off splitters in the dirt. He was flawless with the exception of a solo homer by Pujols.

At one point, Zambrano allowed the Cardinals' leadoff hitter to reach base in four consecutive innings, only to buckle down and retire the side in order each time.

The "old" Zambrano -- the guy who floundered in the spring -- was inclined to squeeze the ball tighter and try to throw it harder with every broken-bat single or six-hopper through the middle. And as a result, minor setbacks suddenly escalated into three- or four-run innings.

"Sometimes I think it's a lack of concentration," said Cubs catcher Henry Blanco. "I'm sure he's been like that his whole career, so it's going to be hard to correct. But anything is possible. If he can try to be aggressive but under control on the mound, that will be best for him."

Chicago infielder Mark DeRosa, who watched Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine define the word "unflappable" with the Braves, agreed. But Zambrano is still young at 26, and he has plenty of time and room to grow.

"Carlos can't accept and move on quickly from people getting hits off him," DeRosa said. "That's good, in a way. But what's going to make him great in the coming years -- and hopefully he'll learn this -- is that he can still win those 6-4 ballgames. He doesn't have to shut out everyone every time.

I think [Zambrano] feels a great sense of obligation to us as a team because we lean on him. … He's the one guy, when he walks on the mound, we have to have that game.

--Cubs infielder Mark DeRosa

"I think he feels a great sense of obligation to us as a team because we lean on him. Even though we have all the trust in the world in our [Nos.] 2 through 5 starters, he's the one guy, when he walks on the mound, we have to have that game."

That's why it was so distressing for the Cubs to nearly give away the series opener in St. Louis. Zambrano, who had thrown 101 pitches through eight innings, was ready to pitch the ninth. But with the bases loaded and an opportunity to blow it open in the top of the inning, manager Lou Piniella lifted him for Ward, who ripped a double over Jim Edmonds' head in center field to make it 5-1.

Relievers Ryan Dempster and Bob Howry made it a little too interesting in the bottom of the ninth, but hung on to help Zambrano raise his record to 16-12. Now he'll get three days to rest his arm before taking the mound Tuesday against Cincinnati.

After beating St. Louis, Zambrano reflected on his second straight impressive outing and observed that he is, indeed, pitching like a new man in September.

"I used to get upset when they got a walk or a cheap hit," Zambrano said. "Now it's OK. If I walk somebody, I'll get a ground ball and get the next guy out. You don't have to be perfect."

On a brisk night in St. Louis, Zambrano was merely very good. And that was more than good enough.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.