Zambrano Ks White Sox in opener
Big Z strikes out 12; Ramirez homers, drives in two in return
CHICAGO -- How many times have you seen the replay of Carlos Zambrano's dugout scuffle with Michael Barrett? Ten times? Twenty? Zambrano hasn't been able to escape it, and has walked out of the clubhouse every time it's shown on TV. But that's in the past. Zambrano is doing everything he can to erase that image.
On Friday, Big Z struck out 12 batters over eight innings to match his career high, and Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez each hit solo homers as the Cubs beat the Chicago White Sox, 5-1, in an Interleague rematch.
"You know what to expect when Carlos is on the mound and he's incredible," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "He had the best stuff I've probably seen all year."
In his four starts since the scuffle June 1, Zambrano is 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA (four earned runs over 31 2/3 innings) while striking out 35. Did he learn from that incident?
"I think you have to have pride," Zambrano said. "All players have to have pride. I was embarrassed by what I did to one of my teammates. I was embarrassed. I said, 'That's enough. ... I'm an All-Star. I'm a good pitcher and I have to settle down and shut it off and start a new season and start a new rally going.'"
He's done just that.
"His last four, five starts, whatever it is, they've gotten better and better," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He's picked up velocity, he's picked up command on his pitches, stamina, the whole thing. It's really nice to watch. It's good stuff."
Zambrano (8-6), who was coming off a two-hit, complete-game loss against San Diego in which he gave up one run, picked up his third win in his last four starts. On Friday, he walked one and gave up three hits over eight innings, including a solo homer by Paul Konerko in the seventh.
Big Z retired the first 10 batters he faced before Tadahito Iguchi singled with one out in the fourth, and Zambrano then walked Jim Thome. He mowed down the next nine in a row before Konerko connected on his 12th home run.
That gave the White Sox fans in the sellout crowd of 39,046 at U.S. Cellular Field something to cheer about, and might have sparked a fight in the upper deck in right in which a Cubs fan's nose was bloodied.
Zambrano now has fanned a dozen batters four times in his career. The last was April 24, 2006, against Florida. This was his 12th career double-digit strikeout game.
"I've seen him pitch before and I know he's a great pitcher," said Cubs catcher Rob Bowen, who compared Zambrano to San Diego's Jake Peavy, the National League ERA leader. "He's one of the elite pitchers in the league. He's young and he's only getting better."
All Bowen wanted to do was keep Zambrano calm and help him make pitches when he had to. It worked. Bowen does have to work on his foreign language skills. In the eighth inning, Zambrano retired Rob Mackowiak, and Piniella went to the mound to check on his right-hander.
"I don't know what they said," Bowen said. "They spoke Spanish. I know about four words in Spanish."
He'll learn. Zambrano may have done well with Bowen, and catcher Koyie Hill, but he does miss Barrett, traded to the Padres on Wednesday.
"It's sad," Zambrano said. "Nobody wants to be traded. I know he didn't want to be traded. It's sad to watch him go. I wish him the best. It's sad, because he was my teammate. He was the guy behind you for four years. He's a good guy, great guy."
It's time for the Cubs to move on. With the win, they improved to 3-1 against the White Sox this season, after taking two out of three at Wrigley Field from May 18-20, and 6-4 in Interleague Play.
Soriano led off the game with his 13th home run, launching a 3-2 pitch from White Sox starter Mark Buehrle (4-4) to left. It was his 36th career leadoff homer, passing Bobby Bonds for fourth on the all-time list.
Two outs later, Ramirez showed why he was missed when he belted his 14th homer, an opposite-field shot. He was activated from the disabled list before the game, and will be limited to designated-hitter duties this weekend to give his left knee time to heal.
"The last five, six days, when the guys go to the field, I stayed in the cage and got some swings," Ramirez said. "I didn't want to miss any more time going to rehab. I wanted to jump right in."
"He's a good hitter," Piniella said of Ramirez. "Good hitters can sit out a while and rise to the occasion like he did today."
Ramirez also added an RBI single in the ninth. Rookie Felix Pie hit a two-run single with two outs in the ninth as well to give Zambrano all the cushion he needed. The right-hander lost to the White Sox on May 20 at Wrigley Field. This is the new Zambrano.
"Last series, he was pitching at 90 [mph], and today, he was pitching at 94 or 95 and he was throwing an 80-mph split and an 82-mph slider and a 90-mph cutter," Pierzynski said. "That's why he has been as good as he has been for a long time. He has incredible stuff, and when he throws strikes and gets ahead, he's as tough as anyone."
"It feels good when you have the ball in your hand and you can throw it where you want to throw," Zambrano said. "That's how I was feeling today."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.