Carlos Zambrano's days of anonymity may soon be a thing of the past.
While the 22-year-old right-hander has been able to succeed in the shadows of his All-Star teammates, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, he's stepping to the forefront now that the Cubs are in the thick of a pennant race.
Manager Dusty Baker said Zambrano doesn't care if he receives less credit than Wood or Prior "as long as we get the victory."
"They're two very good pitchers and have done something in the big leagues," Zambrano said. "I'm trying to put my name on that list."
Zambrano may be surprised to know he's already on that list.
He tied a career high Tuesday with 10 strikeouts, allowing only five hits while throwing 121 pitches. In his last five starts since the All-Star break, Zambrano has an earned-run average of 1.43, striking out 34 and walking 13.
"Hopefully I'm his lucky charm," center fielder Kenny Lofton said. "He's pitched like that since I've been here."
The Cubs jumped on Astros starter Tim Redding early before going into their usual offensive cocoon. Lofton started it off with the first of his three hits, then Alex Gonzalez's two-run opposite-field homer gave the Cubs a quick lead. Gonzalez, mired in a 2-for-46 slump, registered his first RBIs since July 21.
"That shows what he's capable of doing," Baker said. "He doesn't have to pull everything to be productive."
Baker let Gonzalez sit the last two games, and Gonzalez said it was a good time to "get my mind right" and refocus on what he has to do at the plate.
"Hopefully this game will help me turn it around," he said.
Gonzalez's homer was all Zambrano needed, and nearly all that he got. He struck out five of the first six men he faced and surrendered two harmless hits over the first six innings.
The Cubs added another run off Redding in the sixth on Aramis Ramirez's RBI single, making it 3-0. After a one-out intentional walk to Augie Ojeda, Zambrano received a standing ovation when he came to the plate with the bases loaded, and another after he struck out.
Zambrano survived a shaky eighth after hitting Craig Biggio and giving up a bloop single to Geoff Blum. He retired Jeff Bagwell on a fielder's choice, earning his third standing "O" as he walked toward the dugout, and got one more as he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the eighth.
Cubs pitchers have recorded a major-league-leading 1,016 strikeouts this year, and are currently on pace to finish with 1,395. That would break the major-league record of 1,344 strikeouts in a season, set by the 2001 Cubs staff.
They now have three pitchers in the National League top 10 in strikeouts, with Wood ranked first with 201, Prior third with 165 and Zambrano moving up to No. 10 with 128. Few teams can boast of two such power pitchers in their starting rotation. The Cubs have three, plus a solid fourth in Matt Clement.
"This starting staff can take us to the promised land," Lofton said. "And I think it's going to happen."