Carlos Zambrano is one of only three players on the Cubs' active roster who faced Florida in the 2003 National League Championship Series, a time when the team's future was seemingly as bright as the stars.
Zambrano started the potential series clincher in Game 5 in Miami but lost 4-0 to Josh Beckett, a memory that was rekindled Sunday when the two faced off again under much different circumstances.
With the Marlins fighting to make the postseason and the Cubs struggling to get back to .500, Zambrano outpitched Beckett early in what turned into a 14-3 shellacking of Florida. Despite having only 11 victories this season, Zambrano believes he has grown as a pitcher since his breakthrough season in '03.
"I'm more experienced and have more confidence," Zambrano said. "I know a lot of hitters in this league, so I know how to pitch in situations with men on. I feel more comfortable as the years come and go."
On a day when the Cubs retired Ryne Sandberg's number, they put together their best game in weeks. Zambrano yielded three runs on six hits in eight innings, Derrek Lee hit two home runs and scored four times and the Cubs rapped out 15 hits against Beckett and three relievers.
"It was only appropriate we won on Ryno's day here," manager Dusty Baker said.
Though the game was lopsided at the end, the key moment came in the sixth when shortstop Ronny Cedeno's run-scoring single capped a nine-pitch at-bat that gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead. Cedeno went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
"If I play regularly, I feel more comfortable," Cedeno said. "I play one day here, then two days off. I've got to be ready for next year, and I've got to play every day here. I have to show Dusty I can play every day next year."
Zambrano's triple off Beckett leading off the seventh ignited an eight-run inning, the Cubs' best since June 10, 2004, against St. Louis. Beckett and Antonio Alfonseca took the brunt of the abuse as the Cubs went 9-for-19 with runners in scoring position on the afternoon.
The Cubs may be out of contention, but Baker said there is still something to gain from the final month of a lost season.
"It's very rare for me [to be out of a race]," he said. "It's almost like an unreal situation, but that makes you appreciate it more when you get back. It lets you know that the pennant race and going to the playoffs just doesn't happen automatically. It humbles you, and it makes you stronger for it and more appreciative for the next one and the next one and the next one."
As much as Baker may want to look at kids like Cedeno, he also wants to finish the season with a winning record. His lineups will be scrutinized to see which direction he takes.
"It's tough, it's very tough," Baker said. "On the personal side, I don't like to have a losing record on the back of my bubble gum card. You deal with [bad seasons], you learn from them and you get stronger because of it, and I think our guys are going to learn a lot this year, especially the guys that have been with us for a while. We know we've got work to do.
"There will probably be some changes. Sure, we're operating a little skinny in a number of areas because of guys not having good years or guys being injured or whatever.
"But you've still got to play, you still have to respect the game, you still have to respect the fact that the fans have paid their money to come out to watch us play, and then you've got to have pride and respect for yourself as well, as a man and as a ballplayer."
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