On a normal midsummer afternoon at Wrigley Field, Eric Munson's seventh-inning shot Friday off Carlos Marmol would have landed several rows up in the bleachers.
But instead of hitting a game-tying grand slam, the Houston catcher wound up with a routine flyout to Jacque Jones in center as the Cubs went on to beat the Astros 6-0 to start their second half on a strong note.
Carlos Zambrano pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings, becoming the first NL pitcher to reach 11 victories and helping the Cubs reach the .500 mark at home at 21-21. While their homer-free drought hit 10 straight games, the Cubs' longest streak since a 10-gamer in 1988, the end result was all that mattered.
"We definitely have the guys in the lineup who are capable of driving the ball out of the park," second baseman Mark DeRosa said. "But I think people need to take into consideration the wind has been howling in at this place. I know for a fact there have been a lot of balls out there that die in the gap, and today was a good indication.
"I asked Munson when I came up to home plate: 'I know you killed that ball.' He said: 'I did.' I said: 'Welcome to the club.' I know it'll eventually turn around, and it would be nice to start making things a little easier on ourselves, getting a big homer in a big situation. But ultimately the goal is about winning, and that's what we're doing right now."
The Cubs won for the 23rd time in their last 35 games, coinciding with Zambrano's hot streak. He's 6-2 with a 1.55 earned-run average since his so-called "do-over" start in Milwaukee on June 6, and is 5-0 with a 0.40 ERA against Houston the last two seasons.
After Milwaukee's 10-6 loss to Colorado, the Cubs were 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers.
"It's big, starting the second half like we did today," Zambrano said. "We have a lot more games to go. Hopefully we can catch the Milwaukee Brewers in the next two weeks and go from there."
The Cubs capitalized on four Houston errors and took advantage of an incoming wind that forced them to be more aggressive on the basepaths. It started in the fourth when Cliff Floyd and DeRosa singled off Jason Jennings. Floyd scored on Jones' sacrifice fly to left, while DeRosa tagged and took second, coming around to score on first baseman Lance Berkman's throwing error after Mike Lamb's throwing error to first.
Zambrano's RBI single made it 3-0, and a bases-loaded walk to Aramis Ramirez in the sixth added to the lead.
Zambrano tired in the seventh and left with the bases loaded, leading to Munson's wind-inhibited shot off Marmol. Derrek Lee's two-run double in the eighth finished off the scoring.
Earlier in the season, the Cubs seemed like a team waiting for something bad to happen to them. And sure enough, something bad usually did happen. Now they are playing with a newfound confidence, playing smart defense, adjusting to the wind conditions and riding the big wave Big Z creates.
Zambrano said Friday he was one of many aces on the Cubs staff, a surprising statement to Piniella.
"He's getting humble," Piniella said.
Not quite, but Zambrano definitely has become more of a team player, lauding his teammates' play instead of making a scene on the mound when there's a misplay behind him. And whenever he pitches, the Cubs feel very good about their chances of winning.
"We got those three runs, and though you never feel safe, with him on the mound it definitely makes it a lot easier," DeRosa said. "He's not going to give in. He's going to give everything he has because he's a grinder, and he wants to stay in no matter what the situation."
Zambrano's pitching has been one key to the resurgence, but Floyd pointed out that it takes time for a team to get to know each other, on and off the field.
"We can criticize each other, talk about each other, do everything we have to do," Floyd said. "We're a family here right now."
Cubs pick up where they left off
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