Tempers flared in the bleachers and upper deck Friday at U.S. Cellular Field, but Carlos Zambrano dealt the most convincing blows.
Zambrano continued his mission since trading punches with now-departed Michael Barrett as he hurled eight innings of three-hit ball and equaled his career high with 12 strikeouts in leading the Cubs to a convincing 5-1 victory over the hapless White Sox.
The Cubs (33-39) have won only two of their last six games, but that looks like a winning streak compared to the Sox (29-40), who lost for the 20th time in their last 25 outings.
Zambrano has been dominant as of late, going 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA in his last four starts.
"He's incredible," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, the only Sox starter to not strike out against Zambrano. "That's the best stuff I've probably seen all year."
The first inning set the tone for both sides.
Alfonso Soriano led off the game with a home run off Mark Buehrle. One batter later, Sox center fielder Darin Erstad reinjured his left ankle making a diving catch of Mike Fontenot's fly ball and had to leave his first game since coming off the disabled list.
Aramis Ramirez, in his first game back for the Cubs since jamming his knee June 7, then cranked an opposite-field homer to right.
In the bottom of the inning, Zambrano struck out the side. He didn't allow a base runner until Tadahito Iguchi singled with one out in the fourth and was unscored upon until Paul Konerko hit a homer in the seventh to cut the Cubs' lead to 2-1.
"I think you have to have pride," Zambrano said of his success since the scuffle with Barrett.
"After that [fight] I was embarrassed about what I did to one of my teammates. I said 'That's enough. I'm still looking [terrible], still looking like I'm just another player. I'm an All-Star. I'm a good pitcher and I have to settle down and shut it off and start the season over.' "
Zambrano pitched well with little margin for error against Buehrle, who pitched seven innings of four-hit ball despite flu symptoms. He was dehydrated after throwing 116 pitches and was unavailable for comment after the game.
"Take away the first inning, and it was very good," Pierzynski said of Buehrle's effort. "It's just a shame. Zambrano was as good as I've ever seen him. His velocity was back up (to the mid-90-m.p.h. range), his ball was moving all over the place and it's tough to do anything. But we were in the game until the ninth inning."
That's when the Sox's bullpen woes resurfaced. Nick Masset yielded an RBI single to Ramirez and left-hander Matt Thornton surrendered a two-out, two-run single to Felix Pie.
"It's scary," Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said of his bullpen that has an 8.10 ERA in June. "I don't have any other choice. I believe in the guys I'm bringing in. I believe the guys have good enough stuff."
Masset has a 10.00 ERA over his last 13 outings.
"I don't know what it is," Masset said of the bullpen's failures. "I can't speak for anybody else. Myself, I'm going through the motions a little bit. I tried to make good pitches and they hit good pitches That's what happened."
The Cubs have taken three of the first four games against the Sox this season and can secure the season series with a victory Saturday or Sunday. The odds are in the Cubs' favor, based on the fact they are starting two left-handers and the Sox are 5-12 in games against lefty starters.
But the Cubs are more concerned with gaining ground immediately on National League Central-leader Milwaukee.
"It's not early anymore," Derrek Lee said. "We need to win pretty much the majority of the series. It's going to make it hard."
But not nearly as difficult as the Sox's task of gaining any semblance of momentum. They haven't won consecutive games since May 20-22, starting with a victory over the Cubs.
"You can't allow yourself to get frustrated because if you allow yourself to get frustrated, it will only get worse," Pierzynski said. "You have to come here every day and expect to win and believe you are going to win. I still do that and will until the end of this year.
"But there's no frustration at all. Frustration is the wrong word. I would say it's more anxiousness. You want to go out and do everything you can to help the team win."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times