Cubs, Zambrano end slumps, beat Pirates

Forget about Spahn. Forget about Sain.

When it comes to the three-way race among the Cubs, Milwaukee and St. Louis for the National League Central title, everyone is praying for rain.

"Looks to me the best way to pick up ground is to get rained out," manager Lou Piniella said Saturday at PNC Park.

Piniella was joking, of course, but he hasn't had much to laugh about lately with his team failing to take advantage of mediocre play by both the Brewers and Cardinals.

But habitual apologizer Carlos Zambrano came up big Saturday night in his first start since his widely publicized spat with Cubs fans, throwing six strong innings in a 5-1 victory over Pittsburgh.

The Cubs remained tied for first place with Milwaukee, which posted a 4-3 comeback victory against Cincinnati. St. Louis was 1 1/2 games back, pending the outcome of its late game in Arizona.

"These are the hardest 72 wins I've ever had," an exhausted Piniella said afterward.

Zambrano (15-12) allowed one run on two hits as he won for the first time since July 29, when he finished off a 9-2 tear after punching catcher Michael Barrett and then offering his first public apology.

Zambrano had been 0-5 with an 8.29 ERA since the start of August. That record led to the booing last week, Zambrano's harsh initial reaction and his second public apology. Against the Pirates, however, the right-hander was back to form.

Perhaps getting a haircut to remove the blond highlights in his hair made a difference.

"I was feeling good," Zambrano said. "Since my last two or three starts I've been feeling good. I was giving up a lot of cheaper hits."

The Cubs handed Zambrano an early lead, which is exactly what the doctor ordered in his biggest start of the year. Ryan Theriot's one-out triple off Ian Snell in the first preceded Derrek Lee's run-scoring single. Alfonso Soriano added a two-run homer in the fifth to make it 3-0.

Soriano went 0-for-5 Friday and had some terrible at-bats. But he woke up with a fresh approach Saturday.

"Sometimes I feel I try to do too much," Soriano said. "Today I just said, 'Calm down.' "

Zambrano carried a 4-0 lead into the seventh and had not allowed a hit since Nate McLouth's one-out single in the first. But Adam LaRoche's leadoff single in the seventh and back-to-back walks led to Zambrano's exit after 112 pitches.

Carlos Marmol gave up a sacrifice fly to Jack Wilson before escaping the jam, but then lost control himself in the eighth, loading the bases on a hit batter and two walks before Bob Howry bailed him out.

"We have a good bullpen," Zambrano said. "We started the season ugly, but I know we have a good bullpen. Marmol came in and made one mistake with Jack Wilson, and that was enough. He came back and did his job, and that was awesome."

Jacque Jones' RBI triple in the ninth made it 5-1, and Ryan Dempster threw a 1-2-3 ninth, aided by Felix Pie's diving catch in center.

Piniella said he would decide soon whether to save Zambrano for the series opener in St. Louis on Friday night. Zambrano said he didn't care whether he starts Thursday in Houston or gets an extra day of rest.

Having gone several days without shaving, Piniella's appearance is more and more unkempt these days, looking like he has gone stir crazy. But it hasn't changed his outlook, and Saturday he vowed to go with the players who got him here in the final 21 games.

"You can't get too experimental this time of year," he said. "You have to stay fairly constant. Let's hope it comes together at the right time for us. I've maintained all along we have one more hot streak left in us. I'll tell you what, I'm starting to go to church on the way to the ballpark. Maybe I'm not putting enough in the [collection] box."