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09/15/08 12:37 AM ET

Zambrano returns in a historic way

Ace returns from sore arm to toss Cubs' first no-no in 36 years

MILWAUKEE -- The only thing that frustrated Carlos Zambrano Sunday night was his at-bat in the seventh inning. He struck out and looked as if he were about to snap the bat across his knee. But he stopped himself.

"I was feeling too good to do that," Zambrano said with a smirk. "I saw Lou's face. I said, 'No, not today.'"

Zambrano remembered in time that he's a pitcher first. He looked it. Making his first start in 12 days, the right-hander threw his first career no-hitter and the first by a Cubs pitcher in 36 years as Chicago beat the Houston Astros, 5-0, in a makeup game played in front of a very pro-Cubs crowd of 23,441 at Miller Park.

"Carlos made it special for them and for us," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

It's the second no-hitter in the Major Leagues this year. Boston's Jon Lester threw one May 19 against Kansas City.

"I'm a little confused right now," Zambrano said. "I still can't believe it. It's a great feeling, and it's a feeling that you can't describe. To throw a no-hitter is good, man. This is one of the few things in baseball that you most enjoy."

He was able to make history, not only throwing a no-no, but doing so in such odd circumstances. The Cubs and Astros had been forced to relocate after Hurricane Ike struck Texas and the Houston area Saturday morning. The Cubs also weren't sure what to expect from Zambrano (14-5), who was making his first start since Sept. 2. That also was against the Astros, but he had taken himself out of the game because of tendinitis in his right shoulder.

"He had everything going," Piniella said. "From the first few pitches of the ballgame, you knew his arm was live and the ball was coming out easy. It had good movement on it. He located for the most part the whole ballgame, and he used his split-finger and slider to keep the hitters honest. It was just a great game, and we needed that. He had been struggling. To do this, it's special. I'm very happy for him."

Zambrano struck out 10 in his first complete game since June 16, 2007. He got Darin Erstad out swinging on a split-finger to end the game, then pointed to the sky as his teammates swarmed him on the mound to celebrate the feat.

"I guess I'm back."
-- Carlos Zambrano

"He proved he was the ace," Cubs rookie catcher Geovany Soto said. "We needed him, and he came through today."

With the win, plus Milwaukee's two losses in a doubleheader at Philadelphia, the Cubs opened a 7 1/2-game lead in the National League Central. And they did so at the Brewers' home park.

"I didn't expect it," Chicago's Derrek Lee said. "I expected him to try to give us five or six innings and get out of there. But, wow. He obviously was feeling good, throwing the ball like that. That's a huge lift for us."

Piniella didn't want to jinx Zambrano and was hesitant to get anyone up in the bullpen. He finally had someone warm up in the ninth. Big Z didn't need any help.

"I was watching the scoreboard every inning," Zambrano said. "In the ninth inning, when I came out the crowd was all crazy and that helped me a little bit. Thank God, it was the eight, nine and the leadoff hitter [in the ninth] and I was able to dominate those three guys."

He entered the last inning having thrown 99 pitches. Piniella had said pregame that they wanted to limit the right-hander to 90-95 since this was his first start in nearly two weeks. Those plans changed.

"I was warming up [in the ninth] and I said, 'If I still have some gas in my tank, I can still challenge people,'" Zambrano said. "That's what I did with [Humberto] Quintero and the other two guys [pinch-hitter Jose Castillo and Erstad].

"I think I was throwing 95 [mph] still in the ninth inning, and that was the key. When you can challenge a team and throw hard, 95-plus, it's kind of like better for your performance."

It was the first no-hitter by a Cubs pitcher since Milt Pappas did so Sept. 2, 1972, in an 8-0 win over San Diego, and the ninth by a Chicago pitcher since 1900.

"I hope we won't be 36 years between no-hitters the next time," Piniella said.

Zambrano didn't start the game well. The right-hander threw three straight balls to Erstad, but got him to ground out and retired the next nine in a row before walking Michael Bourn. Miguel Tejada then grounded into a double play to end the inning. Zambrano also hit Hunter Pence with a pitch with two outs in the fifth.

Lee robbed David Newhan of a possible extra-base hit when he leaped to snare a liner to end the fifth. Right fielder Mark DeRosa grabbed Geoff Blum's liner on the run to open the eighth. Blum's ball was the second to be hit out of the infield.

Fans chanted, "Let's Go Z," in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Zambrano's previous low-hit best was a two-hitter, done twice, most recently May 7, 2004, against Colorado. He also came close on Aug. 22, 2003, throwing seven no-hit innings against Arizona.

"I think at this point in my career, I want to throw a no-hitter," Zambrano said. "Nobody knows who's going to throw a no-hitter that day. You just have to go out there and if you have good stuff, just use your pitches."

Alfonso Soriano gave Zambrano all the offense he needed when he led off the game with his 28th home run, launching a 1-1 pitch from Randy Wolf (10-12). It was his 49th career leadoff homer and fifth this year.

Ronny Cedeno and Zambrano both singled in the third, and two outs later, both scored on Lee's double off an 0-2 pitch from Wolf. For Lee, it was only his second multi-RBI hit this month. Lee then scored on Aramis Ramirez's single, and he tallied on Soto's double to go ahead, 5-0.

But Zambrano was the story. How could he go for such a long layoff, then hit 98 mph on the radar gun in the first inning and throw a no-no?

"I guess I'm back," Zambrano said. "My arm is back."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.