In a sequence of events reminiscent of Mike Scott's no-hitter to clinch a division championship for Houston in 1986, Carlos Zambrano single-handedly reawakened the excitement of nervous Cubs fans on Sunday night.
Zambrano, pitching for the first time since taking himself out of a Sept. 2 start, struck out 10 and walked one. He faced only 28 hitters, throwing just 110 pitches.
So much for the reports that the Cubs' ace was battling a torn labrum or some other injury.
And afterward, after falling onto his right knee in the infield and shooting his right arm to the heavens, Zambrano struck just the right tune with his initial comments.
"Next stop will be the World Series," Zambrano said.
After losing eight times in a nine-game stretch, the Cubs appear to be gaining steam for October. They have gone 71/2 games ahead of the gagging Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central, putting themselves in a position to wrap up the division this week, and now have their playoff rotation intact.
Rich Harden, who was sidelined for 12 days before getting a win at St. Louis on Thursday, and Zambrano both seem fit enough to take their places alongside Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly.
It couldn't have hurt Zambrano that he was working against Houston hitters who had endured a long, frightening night Friday, when Ike rocked their city with winds in excess of 100 m.p.h.
Astros owner Drayton McLane miscalculated by not accepting Major League Baseball's invitation to relocate this series on the eve of the hurricane, and his players paid for it with a draining weekend that threatens the momentum they built while winning 14 of 15 and joining the wild-card race. But who's to say Zambrano wouldn't have been this dominant if he had pitched Saturday in Houston, as originally scheduled?
"I feel good, man," Zambrano told the WGN-Ch. 9 broadcasters afterward. "I think the rest helped me out a lot. I was able to command the fastball today. All my pitches were working great today. I was watching the [radar] guns the first inning. I was throwing 99, 98. I said, 'Let's get it on.' "
Zambrano needed only 11 pitches to work the ninth. Humberto Quintero and Jose Castillo grounded out before Zambrano struck out Erstad on that 3-2 split-finger pitch.
It was the Cubs' first no-hitter since 1972, and the wild on-field celebration was worthy of the wait. What will the scene look like if Zambrano is right, and the next stop is the Cubs' first trip to the Series since 1945?