Zambrano restores Cubs' swagger heading down stretch
"I'm trying not to be too cocky," Zambrano said Monday. "I'm trying to do my work, and do everything that's possible to lead this team to where we're supposed to go."
Zambrano's 5-0 victory over the Houston Astros at Milwaukee appears to have revived a club that lost eight of 11 before Sunday.
Ted Lilly followed Zambrano's performance by taking a no-hit bid of his own into the seventh inning Monday in a 6-1 win over Houston that leaves Chicago eight games ahead of Milwaukee in NL Central.
The excitement in the Cubs' clubhouse in Milwaukee, where the series was moved because of Hurricane Ike, was palpable the day after Zambrano's feat. Even Ryan Dempster's prediction in spring training that Chicago would win the World Series didn't seem so far-fetched with the Cubs leading the National League standings.
"I still feel that way about our team. We're as talented as anybody out there," Dempster said. "Z said it perfectly last night, here he threw a no-hitter but he said the ultimate goal is to win a World Series. Not just get to the playoffs, not just get to the World Series but try and win one."
Before Zambrano's return things were going poorly for the team. So poorly, in fact, Cubs manager Lou Piniella even struggled to find Cincinnati earlier this month, when he and first base coach Matt Sinatro decided to drive to the Queen City on a recent trip and ended up near Pennsylvania.
But through all the bumps, the Cubs have remained optimistic in the clubhouse.
"No matter how bad things get, we've got too many good players on this team," Reed Johnson said. "We just have too many weapons to really go in a long funk like that from a pitching standpoint and from a position player standpoint, that's big to have. You always see those teams that go deep into the playoffs or win World Series that they have that confidence about them.
"They believe in their ability and they believe in each other and I think we've got that going on here," he added. "I think that's a good thing for us."
What about all the famous failures?
"We just worry about being the 2008 Chicago Cubs. Just stand on our own two feet and represent ourselves and not worry about teams that played in the past here or teams that are going to play in the future here," Dempster said. "We're not cocky, we're just a confident bunch of guys."
Zambrano's celebration outside of Miller Park was quiet. His wife and a few friends drove up from Chicago after the game and he bought three bottles of champagne to share while in his hotel suite.
"We just called hotel room service," Zambrano said. "For 12 or 13 people that's just a little glass for everybody. Just shared and celebrated."
They all kept reminding him of his feat in the odd, weather-shortened series moved 1,100 miles north to Milwaukee from Houston because of Hurricane Ike.
"I'm just shocked," he said. "You know, it's a great feeling."
Said Johnson: "It was Cubs versus Astros at Miller Park, it'll always be something a little bit different. It's just a huge moment for him and an even bigger moment for us as a team because we realize that if he's throwing like that, we feel like we've got just a huge punch at the top of the rotation for sure."
Zambrano also will be contributing to the Hall of Fame, which requested a hat and one of the game balls. Zambrano's brother requested his undershirt and he said he's sure other family members will ask for items to mark the occasion, too.
But Zambrano says he'll keep the ball that was the final out.
"Yeah, the last one is for me. I'm the one who threw a no-hitter, not MLB," he deadpanned. "I have to keep something."
Zambrano also finally made good on Milt Pappas' promise that the emotional ace would be the first Cubs pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Pappas did against San Diego in 1972. Pappas had reminded Zambrano every time he sees him at the annual Cubs Convention.
"It's amazing, every year he keeps telling me the same thing, you will be the next one, you will be the next one," he said.
Zambrano dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky with both hands after getting Darrin Erstad to swing and miss for his season-high 10th strikeout. The big right-hander was immediately mobbed on the mound by his teammates, but he didn't get a single congratulatory phone call until much later because his cell phone was dead.
"I didn't have a charge. When I went to the hotel room and plugged my charger in, I had like 50 some text messages," Zambrano said. "It was good."
And while Zambrano celebrated his shining moment, he said a total team effort -- not just his pitching -- will carry them deep into October.
"We just have to keep the chemistry that we have on this team and it'll take us to the promised land," he said.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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