Zambrano, Harden ready for October

Milt Pappas is the guy most Chicagoans will mention when discussing Carlos Zambrano's Sunday night heroics. But Zambrano's no-hitter is a lot more than just the first by a Cub since Pappas' no-no in 1972.

Think Mike Scott.

The Houston Astros right-hander picked a dramatic time to throw his no-hitter, getting it in the game that wrapped up a National League West title. While Zambrano's didn't clinch anything for the Cubs, it packs that same here-we-come punch.

Zambrano's no-hitter in the least likely of sites -- at Miller Park in Milwaukee, a not-so-neutral site picked for the last two games of a series that couldn't be played in Houston because of Hurricane Ike -- pushed the Cubs' lead in the National League Central to 7½ games over the gagging Milwaukee Brewers. That means that almost anything else that happens between now and the postseason -- including the clinching itself -- could have the feel of an anticlimax.

After he whiffed Darin Erstad on a filthy split-finger fastball for the final out, after he had fallen onto his right knee in the infield and raised his oversized arms to the heavens, Zambrano struck just the right tune with his initial comments.

"Next step will be the World Series," Zambrano said.

After losing eight times in a nine-game stretch, a funk that caused manager Lou Piniella to say the team was "playing like we're waiting to get beat" just last Tuesday, the Cubs have found their finishing kick. They have a mini-winning streak (three games) wrapped around the unscheduled Hurricane Ike break, but the bigger trend is this: Over the past four games, Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden -- arguably the best four-deep rotation in the majors -- have allowed six runs in 30 innings, giving up 17 hits and four walks while striking out 24.

That's the kind of pitching that can take you a long way in October.

When Piniella popped his cork in the visiting clubhouse in St. Louis, only five days ago, Zambrano and Harden were huge questions. Both had experienced a significant drop in velocity, and in Zambrano's case, effectiveness, which was tied to questions about their shoulders.

Harden, who was sidelined for 12 days, worked six solid, if unspectacular, innings to beat St. Louis on Thursday.

"He was fine," Piniella said. "He should be fine, a little sharper, next time. Still, you get six innings, give up two runs, not bad."

The quiet Canadian did not blow hitters away, rarely reaching back for one of the mid-90s fastballs he was throwing with ease during the stretch in which he struck out 70 in 49 innings. His fastball was in the high-80s so much that one scout said he looked like a guy trying to work himself into shape in a spring training game.

Harden did have a good changeup and good command. Fifty-five of his 86 pitches were strikes, and he had only one walk to go with his three strikeouts. He held the Cardinals scoreless until a two-run sixth, which was built around the prerequisite blow by Albert Pujols (this time, a double).

Afterward, he said he didn't care what the radar gun read.

"Who cares?" Harden asked. "I don't know why everybody puts so much [emphasis] on velocity. The most important thing is the change of speeds. I've realized that this year. I used to rear back and try to put everything I had on every pitch."

Zambrano entered Sunday's start with 11 days' rest after taking himself out of a Sept. 2 start at Wrigley Field. His visit to team doctors after that spawned rumors that he had a torn labrum, but the diagnosis was rotator cuff tendinitis, treated only with rest and anti-inflammatory medication.

Zambrano had not looked like himself for a long time before Sunday. He had won only two of nine starts since an appearance in the All-Star Game, compiling a 5.26 ERA while raising questions about whether he deserved to be Piniella's No. 1 starter in October.

He answered those questions Sunday.

Zambrano came out throwing 98- and 99-mph fastballs, according to the Miller Park radar gun, and would wind up striking out 10 and walking one. It couldn't have hurt Zambrano that he was working against Houston hitters who had endured a long, frightening night on Friday, when Hurricane Ike rocked their city with winds in excess of 100 mph.

Astros owner Drayton McLane miscalculated by not accepting Major League Baseball's invitation to relocate this series on the eve of the hurricane, and his players paid for it with a draining weekend that threatens the momentum they built while winning 14 of 15 and joining the wild-card race. But who's to say Zambrano wouldn't have been this dominant if he had pitched Saturday in Houston, as originally scheduled?

"I feel good, man," Zambrano told the WGN broadcasters afterward. "I think the rest helped me out a lot. I was able to command the fastball today. All my pitches were working great today. I was watching the [radar] guns the first inning. I was throwing 99, 98. I said, 'Let's get it on.'"

Music to Cubs fans' ears.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).