Nevertheless, it was good enough for his sixth straight victory. Individual starting pitcher win totals don't mean as much as they used to, but Big Z has now equalled his victory total from 2009 and his overall numbers may wind up looking as good or better than last year's, despite his awful start and what turned out to be a really ill-advised bullpen stint.
"Because I told you the other day, or last year, or this year, whatever, that this will be my last contract," he said. "So I don't think I will be playing any more... Life is short. Believe me. And sometimes you miss things with your family and very important people like my daughters. Sometimes you miss things in life because of baseball that you shouldn't miss, and I don't want to (miss) any moment for my daughter, any moment for anything that happens, especially in my family.
"Believe me, baseball takes a lot of time from us. So I think, depending on what happens in my career, I think this will be the last contract."
The last sentence is the key -- he gave himself an out. "Depending on what happens in my career." We know that Zambrano was concerned about a serious illness suffered by his nephew in Venezuela recently, enough that he traveled there between starts, and he has said this before about his family. Perhaps he'll follow through on this -- perhaps not. What we all do hope is that regardless of whether this latest promise turns out to be true or not, that Z shows the focus and determination he has shown since returning on August 9; whether you want to tag him as "ace" or not (and the answer "not" is likely the better one), he's certainly pitched like one, and the 2011 Cubs will be a better team if that continues.
Meanwhile, Z and Chris Carpenter were matching each other quite well until the Cardinals took the lead on a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning -- the first three runs of the game (one by the Cubs, two by the Cardinals) all scored on sac flies. But the Cubs got the better of Carpenter when Tyler Colvin slammed a three-run homer to give them the lead. The homer, Colvin's 20th, made him only the fourth Cubs rookie (Billy Williams, Geovany Soto, and Walt "Moose" Moryn are the others) to hit 20 or more homers in his first full major league season.
Then Carpenter gave up doubles to Koyie Hill and Micah Hoffpauir, scoring another run, and while Carpenter was backing up third base, he slipped and fell and suffered a hamstring injury that forced him from the game. Aramis Ramirez finished up the Cub scoring with his 23rd homer, which also gave him the team RBI lead with 75. Andrew Cashner threw an efficient eighth inning but then got in trouble in the ninth, forcing Carlos Marmol to come into the game; Marmol posted his 31st save. With three more saves, Marmol will tie Kerry Wood (2008) for seventh place on the Cubs' all-time single season save list. Marmol struck out a pair and now has 122 for the season, the most for a relief pitcher since 2004, when B.J. Ryan and Octavio Dotel had 122, Francisco Rodriguez had 123, and Eric Gagne had 157. The Cubs' team record for a pitcher who threw exclusively in relief for a single season is 129, set by Bruce Sutter in 1977.
I'm one of those who thinks, along with most of you, that if Mike Quade is going to give Soto a day off, Welington Castillo should start. Hill, however, had one of his better offensive days, with a single, a double and his first stolen base since 2004 (granted, he only stole it because of a high throw). Maybe Castillo will get a start this weekend in Florida, against a team out of the race.
The Cubs did a good job of sealing the Cardinals' fate this season; only four games over .500 now and eight games behind the Reds with 18 games remaining, they are likely done and the race could be over by the time the Cardinals come to Chicago next Friday. In the meantime, the Cubs improved to 14-7 under Mike Quade and could still set their sights on fourth place (3.5 behind the Brewers) or even third (five behind the Astros with three games yet to play against them). And yes, I'd like to see a strong finish, because many of the people playing well right now will be part of the 2011 Cubs. This team isn't as far from contention as they might have seemed a month ago.