The stumbling Cubs turn to their only reliable starter of late as Zambrano tries to extend his personal win streak to four starts in the opener of a three-game series with the Atlanta Braves on Friday.
The Cubs (18-28) have gone 5-18 this month, but Zambrano (3-2, 3.53 ERA) has come on after failing to win this season until May 10. The right-hander has a 1.50 ERA in four May starts.
Zambrano has pitched well as Kerry Wood has continued to make progress after missing the first month of the season with a shoulder injury, and fellow starter Mark Prior remains sidelined with a strained right shoulder. Zambrano’s timely re-emergence has been all the more important as Greg Maddux is 0-4 with a 7.81 ERA in five May starts after going 5-0 in April.
Zambrano, who has 33 strikeouts in his last 30 innings, provided the Cubs with their last win in a 7-4 victory over the White Sox on Sunday. He allowed three solo homers, but struck out nine in seven innings.
He is 2-1 with a 4.06 ERA in six career starts against the Braves, striking out 36 in 37 2-3 innings.
Without Zambrano making a start over the weekend, Chicago was swept in a three-game set by Florida, capped by a 9-3 defeat Wednesday. Maddux allowed six runs and eight hits in six innings, and took out his frustration by beating the water cooler with a bat after giving up five runs in the fifth.
“Play better,” Maddux said when asked how the Cubs can get back on track. “Win. You want to fix things, win. That’s really the only way to do it. Talk is cheap. Say what you want to say and say the right thing and all that, but you’ve got to win.”
Chicago’s lineup hasn’t helped, supporting the injury ravaged rotation with only 58 runs in 23 games this month.
The Braves (24-23) are 3-3 entering the final leg of their nine-game road trip and hoping Andruw Jones can build off his two-homer, four-RBI performance in Wednesday’s 9-6 victory over San Diego.
Jones, who had gone 3-for-28 (.107) with two RBIs in his previous seven games, homered for the first time since May 3 and had his second multihomer game of the season and 32nd of his career.
“It felt good, period,” said Jones, who has hit nine of his 11 homers on the road. “Everybody came out swinging the bat pretty good and when guys made mistakes we took advantage. I had a couple of fastballs to hit and I just jumped on them, hit them out of the park.”
Jones, though, has struggled against Zambrano, going 2-for-13 (.154) with one homer and five strikeouts.
Chipper Jones added four singles and scored three runs for Atlanta, winner of 11 of its last 16. He is hitting .438 (14-for-32) in his last eight games with two homers and 11 RBIs, but was more pleased with Andruw’s big game.
“It’s a welcome sight,” Chipper Jones said. “He can provide a lot of offense in a hurry when he’s swinging that well. He hasn’t been swinging that well at all, but it was good to see him go out there tonight and be aggressive from the very beginning and carry it throughout the night.”
Chipper Jones is hitting just .208 lifetime (33-for-158) at Wrigley Field with nine homers and 29 RBIs. He’s 4-for-14 against Zambrano.
The Braves’ Tim Hudson (4-3, 3.95) also has been pitching well of late, going 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in his last three starts. The right-hander scattered six hits and three walks in eight shutout innings of a 2-1 victory at Arizona on Sunday.
Hudson won his only career start against the Cubs last season, throwing a seven-hitter to beat Zambrano 4-2 at Wrigley Field on Aug. 22. Chipper Jones hit a two-run homer off Zambrano in the fourth inning and a two-run shot off Wood in the ninth.
Braves catcher Brian McCann is questionable for Friday after aggravating an ankle injury while pinch-hitting Tuesday.
Atlanta has won 13 of its last 18 at Wrigley dating to 2000.