After striking out David Ross to end the seventh inning, Carlos Zambrano punctuated his success with a hard right-handed punch-out.
"Z" was back. Oh, was he back.
The animated, nearly unhittable Zambrano of old appeared from two weeks of forced rest to throw seven shutout innings Sunday in an 11-3 rout of the Reds that has the Cubs thinking ahead to next spring after Rich Hill had thrown a shutout a day earlier.
Two-fifths of a rotation is better than none, especially for a team that two days ago had no complete games and its ace with an aching back.
The victory definitely had the Cubs thinking of better times, despite sobering news before the game that Derrek Lee could miss the rest of this season to attend to his daughter's health.
"I can't remember us batting around in the first inning," manager Dusty Baker said.
The Cubs not only batted around in the first, they hit three home runs, including one by Zambrano. He leads major-league pitchers with five and is one shy of tying Ferguson Jenkins' 1971 club record.
"We're trying to get him to cut down on his swing," said Baker, who believes that could have accounted for Zambrano's sore lower back.
"It's more when I pitch," Zambrano said. "I only get two or three at-bats a game."
But he acknowledged that Sunday's homer hadn't come with the usual Zambrano zest.
"I didn't try to make a hard swing," he said. "I don't want to hurt my back. I was lucky the ball went out."
Balls also went out off the bats of Jacque Jones, Ronny Cedeno, Matt Murton and Ryan Theriot, who hit two. The last time the Cubs hit six homers at Wrigley Field was June 24, 2003.
Theriot had no homers in 73 games at Triple-A Iowa this season but has three with the Cubs in 42 games.
"I try to get a good pitch and put the barrel on it," he said.
It was too much to ask of Zambrano, who last pitched Sept. 4, to give the Cubs their first back-to-back complete games since 2002, when Kerry Wood and Matt Clement did it. But he threw seven strong innings without pain, scattering four hits.
"Thank God I was feeling good," said Zambrano, who still has Cy Young Award hopes with his 15th victory. "I never give up. Sixteen or 17 wins is better than 14-6."
"I was very pleased with him," Baker said. "His velocity was good, his location was good, especially after being off for so long."
If there was a downer to Sunday's game, it was the continuing struggles of Ryan Dempster. Trying to protect a second straight shutout in the ninth, he gave up three runs on four hits. He has allowed 13 runs in his last 11 appearances.
"We're trying to get him right," Baker said. "We need him."
While they wait, the Cubs can take satisfaction in winning back-to-back Wrigley Field series for the first time since July 14-27, 2005. And Sunday's victory went to a special cause.
"We came out inspired," Baker said. "[Lee] said to go out and play hard and do what you can do."
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