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If the Cubs are to successfully tiptoe through the minefields that exist in the schedule the final month of the season, the five starters in the pitching rotation may have to carry more of the load than expected.
But some of them appear to be up to the task, including Carlos Zambrano, who threw eight innings of four-hit ball Monday in a 9-1 victory over Montreal.
"We try to position them to be ridden," manager Dusty Baker said of his starting pitchers. "But if you override them, you get stuff too, so we'll see."
Zambrano improved to 13-8 with another gem, throwing 119 pitches before giving way to Ryan Dempster in the ninth. In their last combined starts, Zambrano, Greg Maddux and Kerry Wood have allowed two runs on 14 hits in 23 innings, with 18 strikeouts and only two walks.
Working on eight days' rest because of the postponements from Hurricane Frances, Zambrano was staked to a three-run first-inning lead and cruised to the win, tying his career high in victories.
"Especially when you have a lot of innings in a season, anytime you get one, two or three [extra] days off, that makes you strong," Zambrano said.
Zambrano allowed one run, moving into second place behind Randy Johnson among National League pitchers with a 2.86 earned-run average. The Cubs moved a half-game ahead of idle San Francisco in the National League wild-card chase, and are 11/2 ahead of Houston.
"This month, every game counts," Zambrano said.
After snapping a 24-inning scoreless streak in the 11th inning of their last game in Montreal before the unexpected four-day break, the Cubs had nine hits Monday off Expos pitchers, five of them home runs. Aramis Ramirez had a pair of two-run homers off starter Tony Armas Jr., while Derrek Lee, Mark Grudzielanek and Michael Barrett also connected in a game that was decided by the third inning.
The Cubs have won three of four, all against the Expos, with Matt Clement taking the mound on Tuesday night.
"Just play the way we're capable of, and things will work out," Lee said.
Nursing a sore left wrist and a sinus infection, Lee started things off with a solo homer in the first, his 29th of the season on his 29th birthday. After a walk to Moises Alou, Ramirez poked an opposite-field, two-run homer to make it 3-0.
Grudzielanek homered to right leading off the second, and after an RBI double by Alou in the third, Ramirez followed with an arching, two-run shot to left. It was his third multihomer game of the season and 10th of his career. Ramirez has 11 home runs in his last 28 games, and with 29 is on track to break his career high of 34 home runs, set in 2001 with Pittsburgh.
Barrett's homer, a two-run shot off Rocky Biddle in the eighth, ended the scoring.
The Cubs played Monday without slugger Sammy Sosa, who developed bursitis in his hip recently and is day-to-day. Newcomer Ben Grieve took Sosa's place in the starting lineup and ran face-first into the right-field wall while making a catch on a Brad Wilkerson shot in the fifth.
After receiving a standing ovation, Grieve discovered blood dripping from the edge of his eye and had to be removed from the game and taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for stitches and X-rays on his left shoulder. Trainer Dave Groeschner said Grieve's cut was from a vine, not the wall itself.
"Big Ben, his shoulder is a little sore," Baker said. "And he had a cut over his eye. At that time we were looking for a cut man, like he was boxing. Couldn't find one, so we had to take him out of the game."