Zambrano looks to help the Cubs move closer to first place in the NL Central and become the majors’ first 14-game winner when he takes the hill in Sunday’s series finale against the Cincinnati Reds.
Chicago (54-48) bounced back from a disappointing 5-4 loss in Friday’s series opener with an 8-1 win over the Reds on Saturday. With NL Central-leading Milwaukee getting swept in a Saturday doubleheader, the Cubs moved 1 1/2 games out of first.
Chicago is a major league-best 32-17 since June 3 and this is the closest it has been to the top spot since it was 3-5 and one game back on April 10.
“We’ve got to keep grinding,” manager Lou Piniella said. “We can’t get google-eyed over where we are.”
Zambrano (13-7, 3.65 ERA) has won all three of his starts since the All-Star break, allowing two runs in 18 innings in those games.
The Cubs staff ace is leading the majors with an 8-2 record and 1.56 ERA in 10 games since June 6, and in his only two losses in that span, he’s given up just four runs in 16 innings.
On Tuesday, Zambrano gave up two runs and five hits in 6 1-3 innings of a 4-3 win at St. Louis, improving to 7-1 with a 2.04 ERA in his last eight road starts.
The right-hander hasn’t faced the Reds since he was struggling early in the season. He made two of his first three starts of the year against Cincinnati, allowing 11 runs and nine walks over nine innings in losing both. Zambrano is 8-7 with a 3.39 ERA in 23 games - 19 starts - lifetime against the Reds.
Derrek Lee hit his 10th homer on Saturday, and is batting .353 (12-for-34) with four homers, two doubles and 11 RBIs in 10 games since the All-Star break. He’s 3-for-4 with a home run and a double lifetime against Sunday’s starter Matt Belisle (5-7, 5.28).
“I think pitchers have to be very careful with us, because we have a lot of power in our lineup,” said Alfonso Soriano, who had two homers and a season-high five RBIs on Saturday.
The Reds (45-60) had a three-game winning streak end with Saturday’s loss. Cincinnati is still 4-2 on its homestand against the Brewers and Cubs, and is looking to avoid losing consecutive games on a homestand since losing three in a row June 13-15.
Ken Griffey Jr. struck out as a pinch-hitter on Saturday, and is mired in a 5-for-33 (.152) slump. He’ll look to get back on track against Zambrano, whom he is 9-for-21 (.429) with two homers and four doubles against lifetime.
Belisle hasn’t won since May 29, going 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his last nine starts with the Reds losing eight of those games. It’s been even longer since his last win at Great American Ball Park, as he won his season debut on April 6, but has gone 0-6 with a 6.80 ERA in his last nine home starts.
The right-hander gave up four runs and six hits in 3 2-3 innings of a 5-3 home loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday, failing to pitch five innings for the third time in four starts.
“(Interim manager Pete Mackanin) and I have talked, and he’s not going to put up with it,” he said. “He’s made it clear. I have to earn that back, from my teammates and the skipper, that I’m going to be consistent.”
Belisle is 0-2 with a 5.94 ERA in 12 games - one start - lifetime against the Cubs, and this will be his first start of the season against them.