CHICAGO -- Pushing for the playoffs, Cubs manager Lou Piniella went with some risky strategy by calling on ace Carlos Zambrano to pitch on three days' rest, hoping to shape his rotation for the rest of the season.
The results Tuesday night were not encouraging for Chicago, which plans to bring back Ted Lilly on short rest Wednesday.
Zambrano was -- in Piniella's words -- "fidgety" in the first three innings as the Cubs fell in a hole and then fell out of first place after a 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds and their ace right-hander Aaron Harang.
"My first two or three innings I was too rushed. I have to be in control of that situation there, but I felt good," Zambrano said.
"I mean I was trying not to make a mistake. Harang was good today. Somebody had to win."
And somebody did win in Texas: the Milwaukee Brewers. Chicago's loss coupled with the Brewers' 9-1 victory in Houston left Milwaukee less than a percentage point ahead of the Cubs in the NL Central.
"If Milwaukee wins every game the rest of the way, they're going to win, plain and simple," Piniella said. "We said we need to win series and that's what we need to do. You're not going to win every day. If the other team wins every game, they're going to win the division. Period. ... Tonight we faced a good pitcher and he shut us down. What can I say?"
Edwin Encarnacion homered and had three hits for the Reds.
Zambrano (16-13) is 2-4 in six starts since agreeing to a five-year, $91.5 million contract on Aug. 17. Working on short rest for the first time, he lasted just 5 1/3 innings, giving up seven hits and four runs with three walks and a hit batsman.
Zambrano can't get past Harang. They've faced off four times this season, Harang is 3-0 in those games and the Reds have won all four.
"Some time I have to beat him. I'm sorry, but I know I'm good enough to beat anybody in this league," Zambrano said.
"It's always fun to throw in games when the intensity is really high and you have another guy over there, one of the top guys in the league," said Harang, who gave up six hits and two runs in seven innings.
"These are fun games to pitch in, actually when it means something. They're obviously trying to win bringing him and Lilly back on short rest -- trying to set up matchups down the road."
David Weathers worked the ninth for his 31st save in 37 chances.
Zambrano also was pitching at Wrigley Field for the first time since Sept. 3, when he was booed loudly as he left following a poor outing against the Dodgers. He pointed to his head as he left the field to say he heard the fans and then criticized them after the game before apologizing the following day.
On Tuesday night, the Cubs' ace had trouble early as the Reds built a 3-0 lead.
Norris Hopper singled to lead off and Jeff Keppinger was hit by a pitch before Brandon Phillips hit an RBI single. Keppinger was caught in a rundown on the relay throw and tagged out, dousing what could have been an even bigger inning. Adam Dunn was walked intentionally before Encarnacion singled for a 2-0 lead.
Javier Valentin's double, a sacrifice and RBI single by Hopper made it 3-0 in the second. Zambrano walked the first two batters in the third but was aided by Encarnacion's double-play grounder.
Harang held the Cubs hitless for the first 3 2/3 innings before Aramis Ramirez and Matt Murton singled in the fourth. Mark DeRosa, coming off a 5-for-5 game, walked to load the bases before Jacque Jones bounced a two-run single in the hole past Phillips.
Encarnacion's homer to left, his 14th of the season, made it 4-1 and came one batter after Zambrano had been visited at the mound by trainer Mark O'Neal and manager Lou Piniella. They were checking on Zambrano after he'd landed awkwardly while making a pitch.
Valentin drew a bases-loaded walk off Kerry Wood to push it to 5-1 in the eighth.
With 10 games left now there is little room for error or losses -- and the Cubs know it.
"I think somebody will be celebrating the last two or three days and hopefully it can be us," Zambrano said.
- Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said the team was awaiting a ruling from Major League Baseball after it played Monday night's 7-6 loss under protest, claiming Piniella made an illegal double switch because he didn't go to umpire before crossing the foul line. Interim manager Pete Mackanin said before the game he hoped the protest would be dropped. The Reds announced in the ninth inning they had filed a formal protest.
- DeRosa was 10-for-10 in his previous two games against the Reds before flying out in the second. He went 2-for-3.
- Zambrano dropped to 1-4 against the Reds this season and could pitch against them during the final weekend of the season in Cincinnati.