Cubs cruise with Big Z's eight scoreless
MILWAUKEE -- Enough about CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets.
"Our two guys, [Ted] Lilly and [Carlos] Zambrano, aren't exactly chopped liver," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
Lilly got things started on Monday, and Zambrano followed on Tuesday with eight scoreless innings to help the Cubs beat the Brewers and their two aces, 7-1. Kosuke Fukudome hit a two-run triple to highlight a five-run sixth as the Cubs opened a three-game lead in the National League Central.
With the win, the Cubs are guaranteed first place when they head south on Interstate 94 on Thursday night. However, that's not enough.
"You can never be satisfied," said Aramis Ramirez, who had four hits. "We have to come back [Wednesday] and try to win again. You can't be satisfied that you beat CC and Ben Sheets."
How big a series is this? Just ask any one of the amped-up 45,069 fans, or check how many empty beer cups there are at Miller Park.
"It's still July," Sheets said. "Nobody is winning the Central pennant right now."
Zambrano (12-4) gave the bullpen a much-needed breather to win for the fourth time in his past five starts. Big Z gave up five hits, all singles, and struck out a season-high nine over eight scoreless innings. He was up for the challenge of facing a fellow All-Star.
"When you see a guy like Sheets, you know you have to be almost perfect," Zambrano said. "The lineup they have is a pretty good lineup, and you can't make a mistake and you have to have a pretty good game plan."
The only mistake he made was in the fifth when Geovany Soto singled and Zambrano popped up on a bunt attempt, and then broke his bat over his knee in frustration.
"Frustration," Zambrano said. "I was trying to bunt the ball down and I popped it up. I have to do my job. I have to be better bunting. The first thing that came to my mind was to do that. It was the adrenaline and excitement of the game."
Piniella cringed at the sight.
"I just didn't want to see a bone bruise on his thigh," Piniella said. "I wish I was strong enough to do that. I had to use a water cooler."
It isn't often a manager asks a .350 hitter to bunt.
"That's what he might have been upset about, is that I gave him the bunt sign," Piniella said.
The Cubs had been struggling offensively since the All-Star break, but seem to be back in sync. They took a 1-0 lead into the fourth when Ramirez hit the first of three doubles to lead off, advanced on a wild pitch, and scored one out later on Mark DeRosa's sacrifice fly.
The Cubs knocked Sheets (10-4) out in the sixth with seven straight hits. Derrek Lee singled to lead off, Ramirez doubled, and both scored on Fukudome's triple to left. DeRosa made it 4-0 with an RBI single, and Mike Fontenot and Soto both singled to load the bases. Zambrano then bounced a single to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who tried to get DeRosa at home, but he was safe. Alfonso Soriano hit a sacrifice fly -- the first out in the inning -- and Sheets was pulled.
"They outplayed us tonight," Sheets said. "I think they outplayed us in every facet of the game, and it started on the mound."
"We weren't swinging the bats before," DeRosa said, "but at the same time, as a team there's too much talent, too many guys with good approaches for that to continue."
It's perfect timing. Rookie Jeff Samardzija pitched the ninth, his third big league appearance, and gave up a run, but it was overlooked in the postgame glow of what the Cubs accomplished.
"I think it's huge," DeRosa said of beating Sabathia and Sheets. "It's early, but it gives our team a lot of confidence to beat two quality pitchers on back-to-back nights. But it doesn't mean anything if we don't go out and win one of these next two ballgames and take the series. Be happy with tonight, be happy we beat a quality pitcher, but keep going tomorrow."
Milwaukee manager Ned Yost called this series a "dress rehearsal" for the playoffs. Piniella tried to keep the giddiness in check.
"Regardless of what happens in this series and who comes out on top," Piniella said, "we still have to play the whole month of August and September."