The Cubs may be light-years away from a pennant race, but Dusty Baker managed Tuesday night's game like it was the seventh game of the World Series.
With Ryan Dempster losing his control against the New York Mets before a frenzied Shea Stadium crowd of 47,686, Baker gave his closer an unceremonious hook with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
Bob Howry shut the door by inducing Paul Lo Duca to pop to second on a hanging slider, preserving an 8-6 victory and sealing Carlos Zambrano's eighth straight victory.
"Hung it just bad enough that he missed it," Howry said.
Dempster appeared stunned and steamed. As he walked off the mound, Baker called him back for a brief conversation.
"He was surprised," Baker said. "But I've got to do what I've got to do to win a ballgame."
Baker cited Howry's control and the fact that Dempster had thrown three straight days and had a 27-pitch inning.
Even Howry was surprised by the move.
"You put your closer in, it's usually ride it out until something happens one way or the other," Howry said.
The Cubs led 8-5 in the ninth when Dempster gave up two sharp singles, a walk and an RBI groundout. He then walked Jose Reyes to load the bases, prompting Baker to go to Howry.
"It's just like any other reliever coming in," Howry said. "But it's the ninth inning, so everything's magnified. Guys go out and have a bad day.
"I went out three days ago and blew the game in the eighth inning, gave up three runs. It happens to everybody."
Dempster dressed quickly and left the clubhouse without discussing his performance. Baker said Dempster was "still my closer."
Zambrano homered, fielded his position flawlessly and survived a pair of early home runs to improve to 11-3, earning his 10th straight road win dating to last August.
Aramis Ramirez and Henry Blanco drove in three runs apiece as the Cubs put themselves in position for their first series sweep since June 9-11 at Cincinnati.
Zambrano didn't have his best night on the mound, giving up five runs on eight hits in seven innings, but he more than made up for it with his hitting and fielding.
"I think early I was a little pumped up," he said. "It was like the last time I pitched here in New York. I should be a little more controlled at the beginning. I wasn't, and that cost me four runs. Next year I will make the adjustment."
Batting right-handed against Mets left-hander Tom Glavine (11-4), Zambrano cranked an opposite-field home run leading off the seventh, his fourth of the season. The clout moved him two behind Ferguson Jenkins' franchise record of six home runs by a pitcher, set in 1971.
Zambrano also became only the third Cubs pitcher to homer at Shea, joining Jenkins in '69 and Juan Pizarro in '71, both off Tom Seaver.
Zambrano also showed his fielding prowess, making a bare-handed pickup of Glavine's sacrifice attempt in the fourth inning and starting a 1-6-4 double play.
Back-to-back home runs by Ramirez and Phil Nevin put the Cubs on top 2-0 in the first before the Mets answered with a solo home run by Carlos Beltran in the first and a three-run shot by Endy Chavez in the second.
The Cubs bounced back in the third with four runs on only two hits, including Blanco's three-run double to left-center, taking a 6-4 lead heading toward the wild ending.
"In the end, 'Z' won the ballgame," Baker said.
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