CINCINNATI—With the Cubs in the middle of their annual May malaise, it was left to Carlos Zambrano to right the ship Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park.
Zambrano did exactly what Lou Piniella needed him to do, throwing eight shutout innings to lead the Cubs to a 3-0 victory over Cincinnati.
Zambrano allowed three hits, picked a runner off second and contributed a single while improving to 5-1, proving he can pitch, hit and field with the best of his peers.
"The more I got into the game, the better I felt, the more adrenaline I felt in my body," he said. "I knew I had to save the bullpen and throw my best pitch, and that helped me."
The Cubs ended a two-game skid and can win their first series in two weeks Wednesday when Jon Lieber makes his first start against rookie sensation Edinson Volquez. Piniella believes the Cubs are a "marked" team, with everyone trying to knock them off their pedestal.
"Look, I maintain we're going to play better," Piniella said. "But I also maintain two things—that the division has gotten better and teams enjoy beating the Cubs a lot more than they did last year. I see it. I see how excited St. Louis was when they beat us. I saw how excited Milwaukee was when they beat us.
"It's going to make it more difficult on us, and if these guys think that because we have talent here and because we were picked to do things … that doesn't make it any easier. That's going to make it tougher."
After Milwaukee beat the Cubs last Thursday at Wrigley Field, outfielders Mike Cameron, Corey Hart and Ryan Braun mocked them by imitating the Cubs outfielders' postgame victory jump that Felix Pie created last summer.
Have the Cubs really turned into a team opponents thoroughly enjoy beating because of who they are?
"I haven't really noticed that," Derrek Lee said. "I think teams have fun playing us because they know a lot of people are watching on WGN, and we get a lot of nationally televised games because there are Cubs fans everywhere.
"I don't know if it's necessarily us personally."
Tuesday night's game wasn't big on paper. But after Piniella's pregame criticism of his team's overall play, it was important for their mental psyche.
Zambrano came through when the Cubs needed him most, and has allowed two or fewer runs in seven of his eight starts.
Aramis Ramirez's RBI single off Aaron Harang in the first gave Zambrano all the support he needed and Ronny Cedeno added a two-run, opposite-field single in the fourth to make it 3-0.
Wood entered in the ninth and gave up a bunt hit with one out before striking out Edwin Encarnacion on what he called his backup slider, a new addition to his repertoire.
"I have 31/2 pitches that I can throw," he said.
Wood closed it out by striking out Adam Dunn on a 96-m.p.h. fastball, notching a save on the 10th anniversary of his 20-strikeout game.
But Tuesday was Zambrano's day, and he was determined to get the Cubs out of their funk.
"Every team goes through some slump," he said.
"That's normal. We slowed down, but I know we can put everything together."