He was Sunday. Zambrano (14-5), who had not pitched in almost two weeks because of a sore rotator cuff, came out with ‘no-hit' stuff early on, hitting 97-98 mph according to radar guns. He went on to strike out a season-high 10 batters, throwing 110 pitches; 73 for strikes. His only blemishes were a walk and a hit batsman.
"He had everything going," Cubs manager Lou Piniella told reporters after the game. "From the first few pitches of the ballgame, you knew that his arm was live and the ball was coming out really easy. It had good movement on it. He located for the most part the whole ballgame and used his splitfinger and his slider to keep the hitters honest. … He pitched a great game."
Zambrano retired the last 13 hitters he faced. In the ninth inning, he got catcher Humberto Quintero and pinch-hitter Jose Castillo to ground out to Ryan Theriot at short. He then went 3-2 on left fielder Darin Erstad before striking out the Astros' leadoff hitter swinging for the game's final out.
The Cubs' dugout erupted onto the field, swarming Zambrano.
Zambrano had come close to a no-hitter before, most notably in August, 2003, when he carried a no-hit bid into the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
But until Sunday, he'd had some folks shaking their heads recently.
After going 4-1 with a 1.78 ERA in five starts in July, Zambrano labored through August, notching only one victory and recording just one quality start while posting a 7.43 ERA. Then he left a game after five innings on Sept. 2 – against an Astros club he would stymie just 12 days later – with shoulder discomfort.
An MRI revealed rotator cuff tendonitis and inflammation, and Zambrano missed a start.
"He'd been struggling," Piniella said. "To do this, it's special. I'm very happy for him."
It was the first no-hitter thrown by a Cubs pitcher since Milt Pappas no-hit the San Diego Padres on Sept. 2, 1972; not long after the Watergate break-in, and around the same time that Don McLean was singing "American Pie" on the Hit Parade.
Zambrano was asked by WGN-TV broadcaster Len Kasper following the game if he knew of the last Cubs pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Zambrano responded: "Milt Pappas." He said that Pappas had often told him at the annual Cubs Convention in Chicago each January that he (Zambrano) would be next.
Zambrano later quipped that he liked pitching at Miller Park.
"Every time I come to Miller Park, I feel good," he said. "I like the mound. This is a beautiful ballpark. I wish we could have a new ballpark … a clubhouse like that."
Though Houston was designated the home team, it was anything but a home game at the place nicknamed "Wrigley Field North" – a feat that was apparently not lost on Astros manager Cecil Cooper.
"This is not a home game," Cooper told reporters. "This is definitely an advantage for the Cubs, and that's saying it as mildly as possible."
The Astros, perhaps symbolically, wore alternate jerseys over road gray trousers, though the Cubs, too, wore alternate jerseys over gray trousers.
The announced crowd in attendance at the game – played two days after it was first scheduled and over a thousand miles from its original destination (Hurricane-damaged Houston) was 23,441, and almost all were dressed in Cubs garb.
Chants of "Let's Go Z!" filled the stadium as Zambrano inched closer to the no-hitter, and after the game the faint chorus of "Go Cubs Go" – now a tradition after each Cubs home victory – could be heard coming somewhere from within the crowd.
"It seemed bigger than that," Piniella said of the announced crowd.
They had reason to celebrate. Virtually anything that could have gone in favor of the Cubs did Sunday, as Chicago took their biggest lead in the Central Division all season at 7 ½ games over the suddenly slumping Milwaukee Brewers, a team swept in a four-game series by Philadelphia Sunday and losers of seven of its last eight.
The Cubs, conversely, have won three straight since beginning September 1-6, and will host Milwaukee in Chicago beginning Tuesday. Their magic number to clinch the Central is seven.