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Zambrano keeps Cubs' good times going

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs came into Saturday’s contest with a six-game winning streak on the line against the National League’s ERA leader, Cincinnati Reds’ ace Johnny Cueto.

But the offense took advantage of a wild Cueto, knocking him around for five runs before he exited with two outs in the fourth inning in an 11-4 victory Cubs victory.

“It’s funny, there’s a couple guys in this league that are dynamite pitchers. Cueto’s one of them,” Cubs manager Mike Quade said. “We’ve got a few guys that have had some success against him. Go figure, you just don’t know. So you feel like you got a pretty good chance to compete, and we did.”

Cueto allowed seven hits and had trouble locating his pitches, walking three, hitting two batters, and adding a wild pitch. It was easily Cueto’s worst outing of the season -- he hadn’t allowed more than three earned runs in his any of his previous 16 starts.

It was the first time the Cubs saw Cueto with his new wind-up, one that Quade compared to ex-Boston Red Sox great Luis Tiant. The results have been positive for Cueto, as he’s seemingly turned himself into a ground ball pitcher, inducing a career-high 53.4 percent grounders. That is a drastic jump from his previous high of 41.7 percent, which he set last season.

Despite his two hits on the day, outfielder Reed Johnson admitted that it wasn’t easy to adjust to Cueto’s new delivery.

“It’s tough from a timing stand-point, it makes it a little bit different,” Johnson said. “You gotta see him a couple times, because obviously the last time we faced him he wasn’t like that. Pitching is about mixing up a hitter’s rhythm and trying to get him off balance. That’s kind of a way to do that.”

While it may have taken an at-bat or two for the Cubs to adjust, Cueto’s unorthodox approach ultimately didn’t seem to faze them. Starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano started the scoring for the Cubs in the third when he led off the inning with a home run.

“I’m not (Tony) Campana, you know?” Zambrano said with a grin of the Cubs rookie who hit an insider-the-park home run on Friday. “I’m a big man, big men are supposed to hit the ball with authority. Inside the park, I’ll leave that to Campana. But it was a good pitch to hit. Thank God I was able to crush it.”

Zambrano didn’t have much trouble at the plate, but he struggled early with his command on the mound. He walked four batters in the first two innings, then gave up two runs in the third on four singles.

But Zambrano seemed to settle down after the Cubs tied it up with two in the bottom half of the inning. He retired the next seven batters he faced and ended the day with a solid six innings pitched, giving up three runs on six hits, while striking out six.

“For some reason the last two outings … I’ve been fighting with my mechanics, especially with my arm slot,” Zambrano said. “Hopefully my next time (out), I’ll come with a better arm slot and a better feeling about my arm.”

This last week of baseball has easily been the team’s most consistent, well-played string of games. They’ve been led by the pitching staff, but even when they have faltered, the offense has managed to pick them up.

“We’ve been doing things that everybody was expecting from us,” Zambrano said. “That’s what this team is capable of, we have a great team … we need to go compete every day like we have for the last seven days. Have fun, that’s one of the keys to us, have fun and enjoy the game.”

It’s likely too little, too late for the Cubs. Even with this spotless week of baseball, they still find themselves in fifth place in the NL Central, more than a dozen games from a playoff spot. Unless the Cubs can extend their winning ways for another few weeks, playing for fun looks like all they have left.