Zambrano’s no-hitter is anything but neutral

MILWAUKEE – The 1,000-ounce beer shower left a pair of victims in its sudsy wake. First, the poor carpet at Miller Park, which for the foreseeable future will reek of eau de frat house. And then the intended target, Carlos Zambrano, who soaked in the 3½ cases lavished on him by his Chicago Cubs teammates following the most improbable, incredible night of his life.

Zambrano pitched the Cubs’ first no-hitter in 36 years Sunday night against the Houston Astros, who had spent the previous two days braving Hurricane Ike. The 5-0 Cubs victory was originally scheduled to be played at Minute Maid Park in Houston and was moved late Saturday to this supposedly neutral location, which proved anything but: Cubs fans snapped up the majority of the 23,441 tickets sold and caravanned up Interstate 94 to inaugurate Wrigley Field North.

Little did they know Zambrano, their 27-year-old ace, would make history. He had spent the past 10 days surviving MRI tubes and painkilling injections to ensure his bum right shoulder was ready for the Cubs’ playoff push. It was Zambrano’s first start since Sept. 2, and manager Lou Piniella planned to limit him to 100 pitches.

After his 110th, a swinging strike three by Darin Erstad on a split-finger fastball, Zambrano knelt, pointed in the air and readied for the dog pile that soon enveloped him. By the time he emerged, Zambrano struggled to comprehend the situation, a rarity for someone so outspoken. He did muster a concise assessment of his night.

“I guess I’m back,” he said.

And better than ever. Zambrano, who had struggled with shoulder pain in July as well, threw three pitches in the first inning that registered 98 mph and one that hit 99. Never did his velocity wane, his fastball still hitting 96 mph in the ninth inning and keeping the Astros – who came into the game the hottest team in baseball with 16 wins in their last 17 games – retreating all night.

It was the second no-hitter this season – Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester accomplished the feat against the Kansas City Royals on May 19 – and was the first thrown by a Cubs pitcher since Milt Pappas in 1972. Zambrano walked one and hit a batter. A double play erased one runner, so he faced only one batter over the minimum.

“He was just overpowering everybody,” Cubs catcher Geovany Soto said. “I don’t know if he touched 100, but it felt like it.”

Ever since Zambrano joined the Cubs as a fireballing 20-year-old, opponents have offered the same assessment after a marquis performance: He had no-hit stuff. It’s baseball jargon for someone with a great repertoire of pitches, usually hyperbole, because no-hitters take as much luck as talent.

Zambrano’s was heavy on the latter. Only two balls left the infield, the most dangerous a looping shot down the right-field line that Mark DeRosa snagged on the run in the eighth inning. Zambrano struck out 10: on fastballs swinging and fastballs looking and sliders looking and splitters swinging, a cornucopia of confusion for Houston.

Throughout the week, Zambrano had eased his workload to ready for the start. He was supposed to pitch Saturday. The cancellations in Houston pushed him back a day. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, concerned with how Zambrano would respond to the long rest, said he knew in the first inning. Rothschild flashed back to Aug. 22, 2003, when Zambrano flirted with a no-hitter at Arizona.

“When I saw the stuff tonight, it was kind of eerie,” Rothschild said. “It was a dome. The roof was closed there, and it was closed tonight. We were in the first-base dugout. It was strange.”

The Cubs, so accustomed to occupying the third-base dugout in the nine games at Miller Park each season, didn’t mind the oddities. Driving rainstorms didn’t stop Cubs fans from filling the first two decks of the stadium, and all of the Astros’ worst fears – manager Cecil Cooper expressed his dissatisfaction with Major League Baseball before the game – came true.

“This was a home game for the Cubs,” Astros owner Drayton McLane said.

Might as well have been. Some of the Cubs drove to the stadium. Alfonso Soriano’s leadoff home run sent the crowd into a frenzy. And as the game went on and the number in the hit column on the scoreboard didn’t change, the chants began, at first inaudibly, later unmistakably: “Let’s go, Z! Let’s go, Z!”

Lance Berkman, the Astros’ heart, stared at a 96-mph fastball on the outside corner to end the seventh inning. David Newhan, facing a full count, swung on a splitter that would have been ball four to finish the eighth. Zambrano, a habitual scoreboard watcher, looked at the daunting number – zero – and embraced it.

When he walked to the mound in the ninth inning, Zambrano stepped on the first-base line. So much for jinxes. He was the calmest one out there. Soto tried to hide his nerves. He didn’t want to call the wrong pitch. Derrek Lee, the first baseman, was scared that he might get so caught up in the moment he would ruin it with an absent-minded play.

Zambrano just kept pitching as he had all night, his volcanic emotions gone dormant, his vicious stuff reeled in, the crazy pitcher who last year punched out a teammate and a few years earlier hurt his arm surfing the Internet now the bastion of cool.

“Earlier in the year, he would be looking funny at the umpire,” Soto said. “Today, he was very calm. It was a big plus for him. He didn’t get frustrated. It was over with, and he didn’t carry the bad karma, bad attitude to the next pitch.”

As odd as it was seeing the Miller Park scoreboard congratulating Zambrano on his first career no-hitter the same day the freefalling Brewers blew their wild-card lead in Philadelphia, it fit. Zambrano didn’t know what to make of it. He admitted the whole thing confused him a bit, so he tried to act as normally as he could.

He called friends and family, though the cellular reception in the Brewers’ clubhouse wasn’t very good. He hugged DeRosa one more time, thanking him for making that catch in right field. He fielded congratulations from friends who awaited him outside the locker room.

And he tried his best to answer a purely hypothetical question: Would he have thrown a no-hitter were the game in Houston?

“We have to ask Criss Angel or Houdini or – who’s the other one? – David Copperfield,” Zambrano said.

No need to summon those others. Zambrano was the magician Sunday night. He made the Astros’ bats disappear and created the illusion that the hope surrounding the Cubs this year might actually be real.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 15, 2008