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It's hard to imagine now, but when spring training began, Carlos Zambrano was considered the Cubs' fifth starter.
After taking over the National League earned-run average lead Thursday in the Cubs' 7-3 victory over the Dodgers, there's no arguing Zambrano has performed more like the staff's ace in the first six weeks of the season.
The 22-year-old right-hander allowed one unearned run in eight innings Thursday, his third consecutive outing without giving up an earned run.
Zambrano's consecutive scoreless-innings streak was snapped at 22 when an Aramis Ramirez error led to the unearned run in the seventh, but he improved to 4-1 with a 1.82 ERA.
He has yielded one or no earned runs in six of his seven starts.
Zambrano wants no part of that.
"Everybody here is an ace," Zambrano said. "Everyone here makes an effort to make this team better and better and better. The ace is everybody. We have to support each other, and that's what we're doing right now."
Zambrano could have had a complete game, but Cubs manager Dusty Baker took him out after the eighth when he reached 114 pitches.
He struck out 11 and walked only two, halting the Dodgers' six-game winning streak while helping the Cubs avoid a sweep of the three-game series.
"He was throwing quality strikes," Baker said. "He stayed focused and concentrated the entire game, even though it's a little tough [leading] 6-0. It shows how he has matured."
Baker gave Sammy Sosa a day off and made out a lineup that included five players who were brought in as reservesTom Goodwin, Jose Macias, Todd Hollandsworth, Paul Bako and Ramon Martinez, who became a starter after Alex Gonzalez broke his hand.
Those five combined for eight hits and four RBIs.
"I can't say enough about our bench guys," Baker said. "They call themselves 'the Lemons.' It shows you how important it is to have a good bench, especially when have [a day] game after a night game."
The Lemons is a moniker coined by Bako, the backup catcher.
Martinez and Todd Walker still are considered "original Lemons," Goodwin said, even though they're now starters.
"I'm the head Lemon," Goodwin said, "Because I'm the most sour."
"If you're on the [disabled list], are you a 'Lime'?" Mark Prior asked Goodwin from an adjoining locker.
Goodwin told Prior: "Prior watch. That's what you get."
The Cubs scored six runs off Hideo Nomo (3-4) in the second inning, breaking the game open before most of the crowd of 39,591 had parked their cars.
After Ramirez's leadoff single, Nomo walked the next three, forcing in a run.
The Cubs had managed only two walks total in their previous two losses.
Bako's run-scoring single and Zambrano's RBI fielder's choice groundout made it 3-0 before Goodwin singled in another run to knock Nomo out of the game.
"You have to take a little pride when you get in there," Goodwin said. "It doesn't always work out that way, obviously, but it's nice when it does."
Moises Alou's two-run double off Jose Lima ended the scoring in the second.
Though the Cubs wound up with 14 hits, they scored only one more run.
But it didn't matter, not with Zambrano dominating from the first inning, when he struck out three of the four men he faced.
"When God gives you something, just use it," Zambrano said. "God gave me a rare ability with my sinker, so I just have to use it."