CINCINNATI—Every time he wins a game, the probability of Carlos Zambrano staying in a Cubs uniform through 2012 goes up a percentage point or two.
After Sunday's 6-0 victory over Cincinnati, his league-leading 14th of the year, the Zambran-o-meter went up once again.
Zambrano pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings on Sunday before leaving with thigh cramps, and finished with more hits as a batter (three) than he allowed (two), as the Cubs won for the 23rd time in their last 32 games and moved a half-game behind first-place Milwaukee.
Derrek Lee homered for the fifth time in his last eight games, showing the consistent power stroke that's eluded him since his broken wrist in April of 2006. The Cubs follow Lee's lead, taking a low-key approach to their red-hot spell since the start of June.
"We're trying to keep an even keel," Lee said. "We kind of expected this out of ourselves. We feel like we have a good team, so we just feel like we're doing what we're supposed to do, and we just want to maintain this even keel through the rest of the season.
The Cubs finished the road trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati with a 4-2 record, and begin a seven-game homestand against Philadelphia and the New York Mets on Monday night.
"We're going to have our hands full at Wrigley," manager Lou Piniella said. "Let's see if we're up to the challenge."
Zambrano has been on cruise control since the All-Star break, going 4-0 in four starts with a 0.71 earned-run average. He's 9-2 with a 1.41 ERA since declaring a "do-over" to his season on June 6 in Milwaukee.
"I think this is the best stretch I've ever had in my career," he said. "I feel good right now."
Zambrano left with one out in the eighth inning, two innings after kicking a grounder off the bat of Ryan Freel to Aramis Ramirez, who made a nice play for the out. Zambrano continued to pitch and said the foot wasn't a problem.
The Cubs scored in the first for the third straight game, giving Zambrano a little breathing room.
After Ryan Theriot's one-out single off Matt Belisle, Lee was hit by a pitch and Ramirez drilled a run-scoring double. Mark DeRosa's sacrifice fly made it 2-0, and the Cubs were off and running.
It looked like the Cubs had added on in the second when Alfonso Soriano appeared to poke a two-run shot into the left-field stands. But third-base umpire Joe West ruled fan interference, because a man wearing a red T-shirt with "Indiana" etched across the front dropped the home run ball back onto the field, leaving Soriano with a ground-rule double.
Piniella argued that the ball was over the yellow line when the fan touched it. After conferring with the other three umpires, West ruled his call was correct.
In the long run, it didn't matter.
Lee hit a two-run, opposite-field home run off Belisle in the seventh, giving the Cubs a 4-0 lead, which is money in the bank these days for Zambrano.
In Jim Hendry's wildest dreams, he probably never thought the Cubs could win consistently while developing so many prospects at the same time.
Theriot believes the Cubs can emulate the blueprint of the Atlanta Braves, who continuously sprinkled in prospects during their run of 14 consecutive division titles.
"It was guys that had played together, and they kept them together throughout the whole journey and ended up winning division after division," Theriot said. "I think a lot of that has to do with the comfort level with the guys next to you. Realistically, you're going to have to be here 162 games. You're going to have to like the people you're with, and get to know them and trust them.
"That stuff doesn't happen overnight. As you saw that with this team, it took us a little while to get to that comfort level, but once we got our mix together, it's kind of a young core, minus Felix [Pie], that have all been together for four, five years. It makes it very rewarding."