Carlos Zambrano was in the clubhouse changing jerseys in the bottom of the fourth inning Saturday when he heard a fight had broken out between Derrek Lee and Padres starter Chris Young.
By the time Zambrano had burst out of the dugout, belt unbuckled, the benches had already cleared and both teams were pushing and shoving in a wild scrum.
It appeared to be a scene made to order for Zambrano, who had punched out teammate Michael Barrett two weeks earlier.
But Cubs third-base coach Mike Quade managed to keep Zambrano away from the fray, and the right-hander responded by pitching 7 1/3 no-hit innings before losing 1-0 on Russell Branyan's opposite-field home run in the top of the ninth.
"So far it's my best game," Zambrano said. "We lost the game, but we have a chance to win [Sunday] and take two out of three. That's what it's all about — win series. And that's what we've been doing lately."
After the bench-clearing fight over an up-and-in pitch that hit Lee on the hand, the crowd of 41,632 was on high alert wondering if Zambrano would seek revenge or stay focused.
Zambrano kept his composure and sailed into the seventh inning with his no-hitter intact. He even made a spectacular bare-handed grab of Hiram Bocachica's grounder and threw him out with a spin move.
"I was feeling good, running, fielding, before they broke up the no-hitter," Zambrano said. "When you feel good and you're an athlete, you know you can do a lot of things on the mound."
But with one out and one on in the eighth, Zambrano leaped for Marcus Giles' chopper and had the ball deflect off the top of his glove, allowing Giles to reach on an infield hit.
Zambrano punched his glove in disgust but got out of the inning with a double-play grounder. Then he retired the first batter in the ninth. One pitch after Zambrano thought he'd struck out Branyan, the left fielder poked a homer on a low changeup.
"I don't want to say it's heartbreaking, because we're going to be OK," catcher Koyie Hill said after catching Zambrano for his third straight start. "But it's just tough to swallow because he did such a good job."
Zambrano second-guessed himself for not throwing Bran- yan a fastball. But he never would have made it that far if not for Quade, who was holding back Branyan during the brawl when he spotted Zambrano rushing toward the pile. Quade alertly let go of Branyan, grabbed Zambrano and held on.
"When 'Z' walked in there, you just know, to heck with everybody else, we can't lose him," Quade said. "We needed him."
Zambrano insisted he rushed out of the clubhouse to make peace, not war.
"I just went out there to separate [players]," Zambrano said.
Zambrano's longest no-hit stretch is 7 2/3 innings against the Diamondbacks on Aug. 22, 2003. The last Cub to throw a no-hitter was Milt Pappas against the Padres on Sept. 2, 1972.
"I have a long career [ahead], and hopefully I can get one," Zambrano said.
Zambrano received several standing ovations, including one in the third when he hustled down the line on a routine grounder to second. Zambrano's style and flair have endeared him to Cubs fans, who tend to overlook his temporary bouts of emotion.
"I like passion," manager Lou Piniella said. "There's nothing wrong with that. You've got to be yourself."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times