Swinging standard

Carlos Zambrano paced the visitor's dugout at Great American Ball Park with a bat in his hand late Friday afternoon, trying to psyche himself up for his start against Cincinnati.

"I want to kill a reporter," Zambrano announced suddenly, taking a few mock swings at some imaginary writers.

No sacrifice is too great for these Cubs, who apparently will do whatever it takes to win the National League wild-card playoff spot.

While Zambrano never backed up that boast, he did manage to subdue the Reds 12-4 before a friendly crowd of 33,369. The victory moved them into a virtual tie with San Francisco for the wild-card lead pending the outcome of the late game between the Giants and San Diego.

Zambrano (14-8) allowed one run in seven innings and added a home run as he led the Cubs to their fifth straight victory.

Proving that fact is stranger than fiction, Zambrano even apologized afterward for showing up Reds reliever Mike Matthews by standing at home plate and watching his sixth-inning blast. On July 19 Zambrano was ejected for throwing at St. Louis center fielder Jim Edmonds after Edmonds allegedly watched one of his own home runs at Wrigley Field.

"It's tough to say, but as a man, I have to apologize to Mike Matthews," Zambrano said. "I was showing a little emotion on that home run, and they were down 6-0. I apologize to him. After I did that, I knew it was garbage, and I ran the bases hard. If they wanted to hit me in my next at-bat … I didn't mean that. For me, that was too much."

Zambrano was too much for the Reds, giving the Cubs their eighth victory in their last 10 road games and moving them to 17 games above .500 with an 81-64 record. With one more victory, they will be assured of their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1971-72.

Zambrano reduced his ERA to 2.74, tying Arizona's Randy Johnson for the league lead with three starts remaining. The 23-year-old Venezuelan has a chance to become the first Cub to win the ERA title since Ray Prim's league-leading 2.40 in 1945, the last season the Cubs won a pennant.

Derrek Lee paced the offense with a three-run homer and five RBIs, while Ben Grieve entered in the eighth inning and drove in three runs with a homer and a two-run double.

After issuing back-to-back walks in the second, Zambrano had to curb his emotions. He managed to do so, inducing a double-play grounder to end the inning and striking out the first two batters in the third.

It's a newfound maturity Zambrano hasn't been able to display much.

"He has not changed," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "But he's getting better."

Lee's two-run double in the fourth snapped a scoreless streak of 161/3 innings by Reds starter Luke Hudson (3-2), and the Cubs never trailed. In his next at-bat, Lee hit a three-run shot to straightaway center off reliever Juan Padilla to make it 6-0.

Zambrano, who had been threatening to show off his power hitting all year, finally backed it up Friday with a center-field shot in the sixth, the third of his career and first of the season. He has not served up a home run over his last nine starts, since St. Louis hit three off him on July 19, the day he was ejected for hitting Edmonds and getting a five-game suspension.

Zambrano was lifted after seven innings and 112 pitches. He has allowed three earned runs over 22 innings in his last three starts for a 1.23 ERA, while limiting opposing hitters to a .208 average.

"So far, this year has been good for me," Zambrano said. "We are focused, especially me, on leading the team into the playoffs. That's the main concern, not my numbers."