08/15/08 11:34 PM ET
Ward comes through in the pinch
Three-run homer in ninth lifts Cubs to ninth straight road win
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
Ward received a well-deserved beer shower from his teammates after launching a three-run pinch-hit homer with one out in the ninth inning to lift the Cubs to a 6-5 victory over the Florida Marlins for their ninth straight road win.
"That's a huge at-bat -- we needed it, and he delivered," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
With the Cubs trailing, 5-3, in the ninth, Marlins closer Kevin Gregg (6-5) walked Mark DeRosa, and third baseman Wes Helms made a great grab of Mike Fontenot's line drive. Reed Johnson then singled, and Ward, who had four hits in his previous 40 pinch-hit at-bats, followed with his third home run off an 0-1 pitch.
"[Beer] is much better than shaving cream," said Ward, who was ambushed when he entered the visitors' clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium. "At least I can enjoy that."
What was he thinking in the ninth?
"I knew [Gregg] was going to come after me," Ward said. "He's a closer, and has a good fastball. I took the first one, and I was kind of thinking that was it. It was right down the middle. I did it again, and took a fastball right down the middle. Now, I'm going to have to really battle, and I picked up the release spot early, and saw it was another fastball and took a good hack and connected, and it felt great."
He had shortened his swing Thursday when he hit a sacrifice fly against the Atlanta Braves, and took that into his at-bat on Friday. Ward has been trying to get out of his funk. The home run was his first hit after an 0-for-13 skid, and when you're primarily a pinch-hitter, it's a long time between at-bats.
"Right there, I'm just trying to make good contact and I crushed the ball," Ward said. "It takes me time to adjust sometimes, and when you pinch-hit, you get one at-bat, it might take a week and it seems like forever. I was so excited."
So was Carlos Zambrano, who was off the hook. The right-hander was in line to take the loss after walking five, making a throwing error, hitting a batter and serving up a three-run homer to Jorge Cantu.
Zambrano helped himself in the second, slapping a two-out RBI single to right to extend his hitting streak to a career-high six games. But the Marlins tied the game in the second on Cody Ross' RBI double.
In the Florida third, Zambrano walked pitcher Josh Johnson on four pitches, then walked Hanley Ramirez, although he let home-plate umpire Bill Miller know he wasn't happy with the call. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild tried to calm down the right-hander. One out later, Cantu launched his 21st homer to left to go ahead, 4-1. One out and another walk later, Josh Willingham hit an RBI triple that center fielder Jim Edmonds couldn't track down.
Zambrano resumed his conversation with Miller as he left the field after the sixth inning, and continued before his at-bat leading off the seventh. Big Z gave up five runs on four hits and five walks over five innings, striking out six.
When Zambrano was at 84 pitches in the game, he had thrown 44 strikes and 40 balls. That's not a good ratio.
"I think he's rushing off the mound, especially off the stretch," Piniella said. "I don't think his arm is getting into the right slot. I'm not a pitching coach, but those are the things we talked about. He had good stuff. The last couple starts, he didn't have his good stuff. Today, he had good stuff, but he was all over the place."
Zambrano does not have a win in his last three starts.
"We need to get him going the way he can pitch," Piniella said. "You need to have your ace win baseball games for you."
Zambrano got some support. DeRosa belted his career-high 14th home run with one on in the Chicago fourth and Kerry Wood picked up his 25th save, and first since coming off the disabled list. The nine straight road wins are the most since the Cubs won 12 in a row away from Wrigley Field July 1-Aug. 3, 1945.
"My teammates were able to win the game, and believe me, I'm happy for the team," Zambrano said. "There are some things I'm going to have to correct in my mechanics. I have to move forward and keep doing my job."
Before the game, Piniella called this weekend series against the Marlins a "dangerous three-game set." Maybe the problem is Florida. The Cubs had lost their last 10 games in the Sunshine State, including a three-game series this year in Tampa Bay, and had not won a game in Florida since July 10, 2005. The folks at Dolphin Stadium decided to poke fun at the Cubs, and added a goat and a black and white photo of the 1908 team behind the players' images on the scoreboard.
"It feels good to win -- this was my first win as a Cubs manager in Florida," Piniella said.
It was the Cubs' 35th come-from-behind win, tied for the most in the Major Leagues with Detroit and Milwaukee. The statistics may not show it, but Ward has contributed in other ways. Zambrano said the veteran often talks to him when he struggles. On Friday, Ward did even more.
"He hit that long home run for us and we were able to win this game," Zambrano said. "I'm very proud of him. That tells you it doesn't matter how long your slump is or how big your slump is. You have to go out there and try to do your job every time you go to the plate."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.