On a Sunday when Carlos Zambrano took himself out after five innings, when Geovany Soto pretended he was talking during an unusual mound visit and when Chad Gaudin received his Wrigley Field baptism by being booed off the mound, Reed Johnson arrived just in time.
Johnson burst off the bench with two outs in the eighth inning to deliver a two-run pinch homer, leading the Cubs to a zany 8-5 victory over Pittsburgh.
"It was probably the best moment for me on a baseball field," Johnson said. "I've never had a curtain call before. I've always wondered, when I see [ Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee] go out there when they hit big home runs, what it would be like to get a curtain call.
"I was excited to get back in the dugout and celebrate with my teammates. To hear the crowd going crazy and my teammates telling me to go out there and give the crowd the acknowledgment — there's no better feeling."
With the victory, the Cubs won the series and increased their lead over Milwaukee to five games in the NL Central while moving to 22 games over .500 (67-45) for the first time since 1989.
A crowd of 41,200 saw a game full of wacky moments and unexplained occurrences.
With the Cubs trailing 2-0 after Brandon Moss' solo home run, Soto went to the mound seemingly to calm Zambrano. But instead of telling Zambrano to calm down, Soto just moved his lips and said absolutely nothing.
"He just went out there and was standing out there," Zambrano said. "That was kind of funny. He was moving his chin and looked like he was talking, but he wasn't saying nothing."
Soto's routine apparently worked, and Zambrano retired the final 11 batters he faced. The Cubs tied it off Ian Snell in the second on Soto's RBI single to right and a run-scoring double-play grounder by Zambrano.
They took a two-run lead in the fourth on three straight doubles by Jim Edmonds, Soto and Zambrano. After Ramirez's solo homer in the fifth made it 5-1, Zambrano said "it was my idea" to come out of the game after only 82 pitches.
"I was mentally prepared to go five or six innings," Zambrano said.
Manager Lou Piniella said he wanted to shorten Zambrano's outing because he'd thrown 125 and 118 pitches in his previous two starts. After Jeff Samardzija pitched 21/3 scoreless innings, Neal Cotts and Gaudin blew the lead, with Andy LaRoche's two-run shot off Gaudin tying the game 5-5 in the eighth.
"Any time that happens, you take a deep breath and spit that hook," Gaudin said.
But the Cubs quickly picked up Gaudin. Soto drew a two-out walk from Craig Hansen before Piniella sent up Daryle Ward to pinch-hit. When Pittsburgh countered with left-hander Sean Burnett, Piniella sent Johnson to hit for Ward. After Johnson's homer on an 0-2 pitch, Alfonso Soriano added a solo shot, and Carlos Marmol closed it out in the ninth.
For Johnson, competing in the first pennant race of any kind in his professional career, coming up with the game-winning homer at Wrigley was a feeling worth savoring.
"There's nothing like it," he said. "I don't want to be anywhere else."
CUBS 8, PIRATES 5