MILWAUKEE - All the elements were in Carlos Zambrano’s favor.
Zambrano pitched the first no-hitter for the Chicago Cubs in 36 years, returning from a sore rotator cuff to shut down the Houston Astros 5-0 Sunday night in a game relocated because of Hurricane Ike.
“I guess I’m back!” Zambrano woofed.
Pitching for the first time since Sept. 2, and cheered on by thousands of Cubs fans, Zambrano stopped a Houston team that had not played since Thursday. The storm forced baseball to move two games from Texas to Miller Park and the weary Astros arrived only hours before the first pitch.
The Cubs, meanwhile, faced a short bus ride. Plenty of their faithful followed them up I-94, once again turning the Brewers’ ballpark into “Wrigley North.”
This was baseball’s first neutral-site no-hitter, the Elias Sports Bureau said.
“It was a long travel day and Hurricane Ike,” Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. “That’s what I put it on. That and having two days off. I’m not saying he wasn’t good.”
Zambrano, known for his emotional displays on the mound, kept himself in control until striking Darin Erstad to finish off the gem.
Zambrano (14-5) dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky with both hands after getting Erstad to swing and miss for his season-high 10th strikeout. The big right-hander was immediately mobbed on the mound by his teammates.
“I’m a little confused right now,” the three-time All-Star said. “I still can’t believe it. It’s a great feeling, a feeling that you can’t describe.”
The crowd of 23,441 erupted in a wild ovation after chanting “Let’s go Z!” throughout the final inning.
Zambrano walked one and hit a batter in the Cubs’ first no-hitter since Milt Pappas against San Diego in 1972. This was the 13th no-hitter in team history, including five in the late 1800s.
“Pretty exciting stuff,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
This was the second no-hitter in the majors this season — Boston’s Jon Lester did it against Kansas City at Fenway Park on May 19.
It also was the first no-hitter at Miller Park, and the Brewers were nowhere to be found.
The Astros only once came close to a hit. David Newhan lined a drive that first baseman Derrek Lee jumped to catch to end the fifth inning.
While the Astros batted last, Cooper wasn’t happy with the arrangement.
“This is not a home game. This is definitely an advantage for the Cubs and that’s saying it as mildly as possible,” the former Brewers star said.
“It’s hard to put into words. You think first about your safety and your family’s and the people’s safety. Now you have to worry about where and when do you play and all that. It’s just been a long four days.”
Zambrano helped himself with his glove, too, charging off the mound and across the first-base line to catch Hunter Pence’s foul pop for the second out in the eighth.
Zambrano’s only real display of emotion came after he struck out swinging in the seventh, then motioned as if he was going to break the bat over his knee.
Fiercely proud of his hitting ability, he saw the look on his manager’s face and got the message: “Some other game, but not today,” Zambrano said.
Zambrano began the ninth by getting Humberto Quintero to ground out on one pitch, his 100th of the game. After pinch-hitter Jose Castillo also grounded out, Erstad chased a full-count pitch low-and-away for Zambrano’s first shutout since 2004.
With his jersey untucked, Zambrano paraded triumphantly through a series of interviews in front of the Cubs dugout, then waved to the still-cheering crowd as he walked down the steps.
Piniella planned to limit the 27-year-old Venezuelan ace to 100 pitches in his return to the rotation. Having recently had an anti-inflammatory shot, Zambrano managed to come close — he threw 110 pitches, 73 for strikes.
“What can I do?” Piniella said. “I was even hesitant to warm someone up.”
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