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A slap-happy trip for Cubs
It's a shame Carlos Zambrano's Internet access is limited these days, because the Cubs' right-hander has a lot to write home about.
After Zambrano combined with two relievers Sunday on a 4-0 shutout of San Diego, he admitted catcher Henry Blanco had prodded him into excellence with a threat.
Zambrano had walked the first three hitters he faced, and though he got out of the inning unscathed, he still got an earful from Blanco in the dugout.
"Henry told me, 'If you don't throw strikes, I'll slap you,'" Zambrano said.
The slap-happy Cubs finished their West Coast swing with a 6-1 record and have won nine of their last 10 games. They now are leading the National League wild-card race by a half-game, a fact Zambrano believes is irrelevant.
"It's early, but we don't want the wild card," he said. "We want to win the division. That's our goal."
The Cubs were 81/2 games behind Central Division-leading St. Louis on May 28 and have sliced three games off the Cardinals' lead. The furthest any Cubs team has come from behind to finish first was 101/2 games on July 5, 1935. The '35 Cubs went on to win the NL pennant by four games.
Can the Cubs catch the Cards?
"Yeah," Zambrano said. "If we're still playing like that, we can catch them."
The Cubs dealt the Padres their first losing home series of the season, beating Woody Williams (2-3). Corey Patterson's run-scoring double in the fourth gave them the lead, and they added single runs off the Padres' bullpen on singles by Aramis Ramirez in the sixth and Jeromy Burnitz in the seventh and a double by Derrek Lee in the ninth.
"With all the adversity it seems like we had early on, I think people kind of expected us to go the other way," Lee said. "We kept our heads up, kept plugging along, and now we're playing great baseball. I don't see any reason why we can't continue like this. It's only going to get better."
Lee went 3-for-5 and finished the trip hitting .485 (16-for-33) to improve his league-leading average to .385. Neifi Perez hit .412 (14-for-34) on the trip and extended his hitting streak to 14 games.
Overall, the Cubs hit .314 on the trip and averaged 5.4 runs per game, while their pitchers posted an earned-run average of 2.57.
Zambrano's moment of truth came in the sixth, when he struck out Phil Nevin with two men on base with a 96-m.p.h. fastball.
"I threw that pitch with my heart," Zambrano said.
Zambrano then coaxed Ramon Hernandez to ground out on a 1-0 slider and pumped his fist as he stalked back to the dugout. Over his last four starts, Zambrano has a 0.93 ERA and has yielded only 10 hits over 29 innings. He credited Blanco for getting him under control Sunday.
"He helped me a lot, and I appreciate it," Zambrano said. "When I calmed down I said to myself, 'This is my game. You've got good stuff today, so just pitch the game and let's go. Forget about everything. Forget about the umpires.'"
Will Ohman and Ryan Dempster finished it off with a scoreless inning apiece, ending a trip that was close to perfection. Now the Cubs return for a nine-game homestand, hoping to stay as relaxed and carefree as they were in California.
"Winning is easier on everybody," Burnitz said. "Putting together a little roll, and there's no doubt the guys are definitely more relaxed and having a good time. You always talk about having fun, like, 'Oh, let's go out there and have fun.' I never understood that. You have fun when you put together some wins, and that's what we've done."