Zambrano pitched himself out of an extended slump, limiting the Pirates to two hits and a run over six-plus innings as the Chicago Cubs got a much-needed win by beating Pittsburgh 5-1 Saturday night.
The Cubs had lost four of five, including a 6-1 defeat Friday night to last-place Pittsburgh, and were in danger of falling out of the NL Central lead for the first time since Aug. 16 before Zambrano and four relievers combined on a two-hitter. Chicago remained tied with Milwaukee, which rallied to beat the Reds 4-3.
Zambrano (15-12) had been 0-3 since signing a $91.5 million contract extension last month and was 0-5 with an 8.29 ERA over six starts since last winning July 29, a slump that was clearly frustrating him. He ripped Cubs fans for their lack of support after he gave up eight runs in 4 1/3 innings Monday against Los Angeles, though he apologized a day later.
"I will remember that," Zambrano said of the crowd reaction. "I don't want to stink and (have) bad outings. I know the great moment of my career will come."
In Pittsburgh, Zambrano got the best possible road crowd reaction: silence.
After Nate McLouth singled with one out in the first, Zambrano didn't allow another hit until Adam LaRoche singled to start the seventh. The Pirates failed to get an extra-base hit for the first time in 98 games, a modern-era club record.
"It was good to see our No. 1 starter win for first time in seven starts," manager Lou Piniella said. "I had a nice talk with him, with the pitching coach (Larry Rothschild), the other day and I said, 'Look, put all that behind you. We need a strong finish from you, that's what's important.' "
Zambrano agreed the talk helped.
"I had been trying to do too much, but I had that conversation with Lou and Larry the other day, and that took some of the pressure off," Zambrano said. "I just went out to do my job and do what I'm capable of doing."
Zambrano's only problem was wildness -- he walked five while throwing 112 pitches, a high pitch count given the limited number of hits. Zambrano was lifted with the bases loaded and none out in the seventh after walking Jose Bautista and Ronny Paulino, but Carlos Marmol got out of the jam with minimal damage by permitting only a Jack Wilson sacrifice fly.
Zambrano, previously 0-4 in five starts against the Pirates since last season, struck out eight.
"He's our ace, dude, we expect him to throw well and he expects to throw well," Jacque Jones said.
Ian Snell (9-12) lost for the seventh time in nine decisions, partly because he gave up another homer -- his 13th in 12 starts since the All-Star break. Soriano's homer, his 23rd and third in three games, followed Jones' leadoff walk in the fifth. Jones also had an RBI triple in the ninth.
Soriano possibly benefited from Pirates left fielder Jason Bay being lifted the inning before with right knee pain. McLouth was in position to make the catch of Soriano's long drive, but the ball deflected off his glove and into the first row of seats.
"The way he hit it, I thought it was way out of ballpark," Piniella said. "It surprised me the left fielder almost caught it and made a great play."
McLouth said the ball was hit directly at him, which made it tough to judge, but he was there to make the catch.
"I knew I was close. I was up against the wall," McLouth said. "It glanced off the side of my glove. I was in the right spot."
Bay, at 6-foot-2, is three inches taller than McLouth and it is possible he might have made the catch had he still been in left field. Zambrano had another reason for wanting Bay out of the game: Bay's five career homers against him.
"Thank God Jason Bay came out after the first at-bat," Zambrano said. "He's been hitting me good lately."
Snell fell behind 1-0 in the first on Ryan Theriot's one-out triple and Derrek Lee's RBI single. Soriano's drive made it 3-0, and the Cubs added a run in the seventh before Snell was lifted. Jason Kendall doubled, moved to third when center fielder Nyjer Morgan misplayed the ball and scored on Jones' hard-hit grounder to first that was ruled an error on LaRoche.
Ryan Dempster finished up in the ninth in his first appearance since losing a 4-3 lead in the ninth inning of a 7-4 loss to the Dodgers on Thursday.
- Piniella is debating whether to start Zambrano on his usual four days' rest Thursday against Houston or hold him back a day to start against St. Louis on Friday.
- Marmol has the NL's second highest percentage of runners stranded, 86.8 percent (33 of 38).
- Bay had arthroscopic knee surgery in December, but that was on his left knee.
- Zambrano is 10-4 in 15 road starts and 5-1 in 11 games in PNC Park.
- Wilson was 0-for-3 after going 14-for-20 in his previous five games.