For a starting pitcher, nothing causes more angst than failing to get through the fifth inning with a lead.
Carlos Zambrano had done that against the Pittsburgh Pirates in his last start, triggering some talk that he was battling a stiff shoulder. He was determined to regain his groove when given an instant rematch in the series opener against the Cubs' favorite punching bags.
When Zambrano singled to right field off reliever Sean Burnett in the fifth inning Friday night at PNC Park, he wasn't merely outpitching the Pirates. He was outhitting them too.
Zambrano had a 3-2 edge in hits at the time. He would wind up with the Cubs' first four-hit game by a pitcher in 44 years and cruise to a 12-3 victory before a crowd of 32,656 at PNC Park.
The victory pushed the first-place Cubs back to 10 games above .500, a record they have built largely by going 9-1 against Pittsburgh.
"It goes to show you when [Zambrano] is concentrating what he's capable of doing," manager Lou Piniella said. "There had been reports he had some stiffness here, stiffness there. He just disproved those things."
The Pirates are 21-17 against the rest of the NL but have beaten the Cubs only when Zambrano couldn't protect a 4-2 lead May 17 at Wrigley Field.
It's fair to say Zambrano (7-1) got revenge. He held the Pirates to two runs and six hits over seven innings while going 4-for-5 at the plate, with three singles right-handed and one left-handed. The last Cubs pitcher to get four hits was Lew Burdette, who had four July 23, 1964.
The switch-hitter is batting .343 but says he has no plans to quit his day job.
"Pitching, that's my job," Zambrano said. "That's the best thing I know how to do."
Hitting was contagious for the Cubs, who had lost their last two games to Houston. Reed Johnson had a home run and two doubles and Aramis Ramirez delivered three singles. The Cubs pounded Zach Duke (2-3) and two relievers for a season-high 19 hits.
The barrage started immediately, as it generally has in this one-sided season series. Alfonso Soriano's leadoff double fueled a two-run first inning, marking the fifth time they have scored in the first against Pittsburgh this season.
The Pirates, wearing their red "Witness Protection Program" jerseys, helped with shoddy fielding as the Cubs scored in each of the first six innings.
If Zambrano had a regret Friday, it would have been the sixth-inning strikeout against Burnett that kept him from having a perfect night at the plate.
All four of his hits were singles: a grounder past second baseman Freddy Sanchez in the second, a bloop to right in the fourth, a liner to right in the fifth and a liner to center in the eighth.
That came in an ego-stroking at-bat when Piniella let Zambrano bat for himself even though he had decided 109 pitches were enough. Jose Ascanio came in to start the eighth.
Zambrano has no interest in moving up in the order.
"I'm OK with hitting behind [ Mark] DeRosa or Johnson," he said. "When you have Soriano hitting after you, you're going to get a lot of fastballs."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun