Cubs pound Pirates

Carlos Zambrano was coasting along with a six-run lead against Pittsburgh in the fifth inning Sunday when he decided to show off his acrobatic skills.

After failing to stop Matt Lawton's comebacker with his bare hand, Zambrano chased down the ball on the grass between first and second, picked it up and blindly threw it between his legs toward first baseman Derrek Lee. As Lawton reached first with an infield hit, Zambrano ended his routine by falling backward and doing a reverse somersault.

There may not have been a funnier moment at Wrigley Field this season, and an appreciative crowd of 39,391 gave Zambrano a loud ovation for his effort.

With the Cubs on their way to an 8-2 win over the Pirates, there was plenty of time for levity.

Zambrano allowed one unearned run and five hits in eight innings and contributed a two-run double to the left-field wall in the Cubs' five-run third.

Afterward, the focus was on Zambrano's zany attempt at a gymnastics routine. He said he made the play instinctively.

"I started to kick the ball, but there was no room to kick the ball, so I threw it between my legs," Zambrano explained. "If I threw the ball harder, I'd have gotten an out, but I threw it too soft."

The judges in the Cubs bullpen gave Zambrano a 9.5 for style points, even though he didn't get the out.

"He showed total athleticism to be able to come up with his hat in his hand," reliever Ryan Dempster said. "I don't know how he did that. I want to see the replay. His hat flew off, he backflipped, and then he came up and it was in his hand.

"The backward somersault? It was incredible. It would've been great had he made the play because it would've been up for an ESPY award."

Lee gave up on trying to keep a straight face after watching the play unfold. He couldn't do it.

"I was just laughing," he said. "It was funny to watch. He's so athletic. He almost pulled that play off. For a guy to be that big and so athletic, he's just fun to watch."

The only detractor was manager Dusty Baker, who lauded the effort but cringed as he often does whenever Zambrano tries to stop hard shots up the middle with his pitching hand.

"We've been trying to stop him from that, but that's an instinctive thing," Baker said. "We wish he didn't do it."

Nevertheless, the streaky Cubs were relaxed, rested and in a groove again. Not only did they take three of four from the Pirates and pull to within five games of the wild card-leading Braves, they also made it through a homestand for the first time recently without anyone being booed.

Burnitz, Lee and Aramis Ramirez all homered, and the Cubs rapped 15 hits against Kip Wells (6-10) and four relievers, making it an easy afternoon for Zambrano.

"We're kind of clicking on the same page," Lee said. "For a while there we'd get good pitching and we wouldn't hit, or hit and not get good pitching. But right now we're on the same page and playing great."

The Cubs have won six of seven. Dominant starting pitching is the main reason for the turnaround after a season-high eight-game losing streak.

Cubs starters have combined for a 1.37 earned-run average in their last seven games. The only start of fewer than seven innings was Kerry Wood's six on Friday when he was rested with an 11-1 lead.

"The longer they can go, that means the game is either close or we have the lead," Baker said. "It starts with your starting pitching and goes from there. It's great to see these guys going real deep."

psullivan@tribune.com

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