Big Z leaves no doubt he's back

Big Z leaves no doubt he's back

MILWAUKEE -- It turns out that Carlos Zambrano might be all right for the stretch drive and the postseason after all. Otherwise, he probably couldn't have pitched the game of his or anybody else's lifetime.

It was a neutral-site no-no on Sunday night at Miller Park, Zambrano no-hitting the Houston Astros in a 5-0 Chicago Cubs victory. Zambrano had not pitched since Sept. 2 because of a bout of rotator cuff tendinitis. What did it all mean?

"It means I'm back," Zambrano said with a smile. "My arm is back."

You've never seen anything like this, because there has never been anything like this. The Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros are playing at Miller Park, because the effects of Hurricane Ike on the Houston area have forced their matchup to find another home. So this is a novel setting amid strange events for this series. But even all that wasn't quite as singular as Zambrano taking these off-the-beaten-path circumstances and turning them into a forum for the game of a lifetime.

The Astros had won their past six games and 14 of 15. So, you had a red-hot Astros team and a slightly rusty Zambrano. This did not seem to be a recipe for total pitching domination, for historic greatness, and yet, that is exactly what occurred.

No great defensive plays were required, because the Astros rarely hit the ball hard. Geoff Blum opened the eighth with a semi-line drive to right, but Mark De Rosa got a good jump on the ball and did not have to travel far to catch it.

"That was the only ball that had a legitimate chance to fall in," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

In fact, that was one of only two balls that reached the outfield against Zambrano, the other being Miguel Tejada's routine fly to right in the first. This was domination, utter and complete. Zambrano roared through the Astros' lineup three times with not only command but efficiency. He walked just one batter -- Michael Bourn in the fourth frame -- and hit a batter -- Hunter Pence in the fifth. He struck out 10 and needed only 110 pitches to complete this masterpiece.

Maybe a brief rest was all that he really needed. You knew something was up when he was hitting 97 and 98 mph on the stadium radar gun in the first inning. Toss in the typically-nasty slider and the very effective split-fingered fastball, and it turned out to be an unhittable combination.

"He had everything going from the first pitch of the ballgame," Piniella said. "You knew his arm was live and, the ball was coming out of his hand really easy."

"His ball was really heavy," catcher Geovany Soto said. "He was bringing it really good."

And, as both the manager and the catcher noted, Zambrano kept his composure. This has periodically been an issue for the highly competitive Zambrano, but on this night, he was in command not only of his pitches, but of his emotions.

"He calmed himself down," Soto said. "If he didn't get a call, he didn't get rattled."

Zambrano knew what kind of stuff he had, and he didn't try to kid anybody that he wasn't aware that he had a no-hitter going.

"I was thinking [about it] the whole game," Zambrano said. "I was looking at the scoreboard every inning."

He kept his stuff all the way through this no-hitter. That was evident on the game's last pitch, as the veteran Darin Erstad, an accomplished, professional hitter, flailed away unsuccessfully at a pitch that broke down and away from him.

The fact that he came out for the ninth knowing that he could still challenge hitters was a key, Zambrano said. Two groundouts and the final strikeout proved his point.

After this gem, Zambrano was subdued, seemingly even a bit humbled by his achievement.

"I'm a little confused right now," he said. "I still don't believe it."

He thanked God in response to roughly every other postgame question and at one point he even thanked Miller Park for being such a nice place. He had pitched a game for the ages, but there was not an ounce of boastfulness about his response to this accomplishment.

Carlos Zambrano is one of those pitchers for whom a no-hitter has always seemed possible. He has already thrown two two-hitters in his career. But the timing of this classic was exquisite for the Cubs and their fans. For anybody who was worried that Zambrano only had one really superior start in August, or that the shoulder problem was going to derail him for the rest of this season, this performance was the ultimate reassurance.

Big Z is definitely back. And so are the Cubs. After that stretch of losing eight out of nine, they have now won three straight and are 7 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers in the National League Central with just 15 games to play.

And Carlos Zambrano, their ace starter, not only returned in complete health to the rotation on Sunday night, he also returned better than ever -- epically, historically dominant. On this night, he was both terrific and comforting.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.