Immediately after finishing off the game of his life, Carlos Zambrano got down on one knee and thrust his arms toward the sky.
The emotional right-hander threw the Cubs' first no-hitter in 36 years Sunday night, a 5-0 win over Houston at Miller Park in which he returned from an 11-day layoff in his own inimitable style.
"I guess I'm back," Zambrano said with a wide smile.
Big Z is back, all right, and better than ever.
Zambrano became the first Cub to throw a no-hitter since Milt Pappas on Sept. 2, 1972, turning up the volume on his fastball and dominating from start to finish in a remarkable 110-pitch outing. He struck out a season-high 10 and walked one. Only two balls left the infield all night, and there were no close calls or spectacular plays needed to save him.
"Pretty exciting stuff," manager Lou Piniella said. "Just a great game by Carlos. He had that good fastball from the first pitch all the way till the end, mixed in some sliders, split-fingers, and beat a team that's really been hot.
"I'm really proud of him. We were talking before the ballgame about 90 pitches, but I told Alan [Trammell], 'If he's got to come out of the game, you go get him. I'm not.' "
The pro-Cubs crowd of 23,441 that showed up for the first makeup game of the hurricane-affected series between the Cubs and Astros got a chance to see history, and Zambrano never wavered in his performance.
No one could have predicted Zambrano would dominate a red-hot Astros team in such fashion—he'd won only one game since August and suffered from shoulder pain that forced him to miss a start. But Zambrano was untouchable from the outset, improving to 14-5 and re-establishing himself as the ace of the staff.
How did he get up to 98 m.p.h. after not throwing that hard since early in the season?
"I don't know, man, my arm is weird, for real," Zambrano said. "Sometimes I give all I have in my arm. I even go back and try to throw harder and I just see 92-93. And sometimes I just kind of play catch with [ Geovany Soto] and see the scoreboard and it's 97-98.
"I don't know. I think it's because if you use your leg like Larry [Rothschild] tells me all the time, use your leg perfectly, you throw the ball harder. It's not just your arm, it's how you throw."
Entering the ninth having thrown only 99 pitches, Zambrano was still on fire. Humberto Quintero grounded to shortstop Ryan Theriot on the first pitch, and pinch-hitter Jose Castillo followed with another routine grounder to short. Zambrano then got Darin Erstad to chase a split-finger pitch for strike three, turning the ballpark into a temporary mosh pit.
"I felt good, I like the mound," Zambrano said. "This is a beautiful ballpark. Gosh, I wish we could have a new ballpark."
Alfonso Soriano staked the Cubs to a quick lead with a home run on the third pitch of the game off lefty Randy Wolf, who shut out the Cubs they last time they saw him. The Cubs added four in the third on Derrek Lee's two-run double and run-scoring hits by Aramis Ramirez and Soto, leaving Zambrano to assume the spotlight the rest of the night.
Zambrano had a close encounter with a no-hitter on Aug. 22, 2003, when he pitched seven no-hit innings in Arizona before Shea Hillenbrand broke it up with two outs in the eighth. Rothschild noticed some strange resemblances between that night and Sunday.
"When I saw the stuff tonight, I said, 'This is kind of eerie,' " he said. "It's a dome (like Arizona's), and the roof was closed there. It was closed tonight. And we were in the first base dugout there too.
"It was kind of strange. I said, 'I don't know what's going to happen here, but if he maintains his stuff, he's got a chance.' "
Zambrano said he was thinking of a no-hitter from the start, knowing he had the stuff to get it done.
"I'm a little confused right now," he said. "I still can't believe it.
Believe it, Big Z.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times