MILWAUKEE - With the stuff Carlos Zambrano possesses, it seemed only a matter of time before he pitched a no-hitter.
But this time? Twelve days after he took himself out of a game because his shoulder was hurting?
Such is life with the Cubs' talented and mercurial right-hander. The 27-year-old Zambrano not only was adequate Sunday night against the Houston Astros. He was dominant, tossing the first no-hitter of his career as the Cubs beat the Astros 5-0 at Miller Park.
It was the Cubs' first no-hitter since Milt Pappas flirted with a perfect game while no-hitting the Padres on Sept. 2, 1972, at Wrigley Field. It also was the first no-hitter pitched at a "neutral site," as the Cubs and Astros played in Milwaukee because of the effects of Hurricane Ike on Houston.
The victory also moved the first-place Cubs (89-58) to 7 games ahead of the Brewers in the National League Central.
Zambrano reached 98 mph on his fastball three times in the first inning and 99 mph once, as recorded on the scoreboard. He allowed only two balls to get to the outfield all game. He struck out Darin Erstad on a nasty split-finger pitch to end the game and then immediately dropped to his knees and was mobbed by his teammates.
The pro-Cubs crowd of 23,441 at the home of the Brewers stood and cheered after voicing full-throated approval of Zambrano all night.
In the end, Zambrano seemed as surprised as anybody.
"I'm a little confused right now," he said. "I still can't believe it. It's a great feeling. 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 in you career."
Believe it or not, the no-hitter didn't come as a total shock to everybody. Since Zambrano's last outing, pitching coach Larry Rothschild worked with him on the side and noticed that the old pop was coming back to Zambrano's fastball.
The Cubs gave Zambrano all the offense he needed when Alfonso Soriano led off the game with a homer. The Cubs also scored 4 in the third.
But the story was all Zambrano, and when he worked an easy 1-2-3 first on 13 pitches, Rothschild felt something might be up.
"I shouldn't say this, but in the first inning, when I was watching him throw, it was similar to the day in Arizona a few years ago when took the no-hitter into the (eighth) inning," Rothschild said, referring to Zambrano losing a no-hit bid on a disputed call on Aug. 22, 2003, when the Diamondbacks' Shea Hillenbrand beat out a hit.
"But when I saw the stuff tonight, I said, 'This is kind of eerie.' It's a dome. The roof was closed there. It's closed tonight. We were in the first-base dugout there, too. It was kind of strange, but 'I don't know what's going to happen here. But if maintains his stuff, he's going to have a chance.'"
Zambrano threw only 110 pitches on a night when manager Lou Piniella wanted to limit him to between 90 and 100 because of the shoulder. He walked one and struck out 10.
No one reached base against Zambrano until Michael Bourn walked with one out in the fourth. Miguel Tejada then grounded into a double play.
Zambrano hit Hunter Pence with a pitch with two outs in the fifth, but first baseman Derrek Lee snagged David Newhan's liner. Zambrano ended the seventh by getting the dangerous Lance Berkman on a called third strike.
After right fielder Mark DeRosa ran down Geoff Blum's liner to the right-field corner to start the eighth, Zambrano sprinted into foul territory to catch Pence's popout before striking out Newhan.
In the ninth, Zambrano got Humberto Quintero on a first-pitch groundout to shortstop Ryan Theriot. Pinch hitter Jose Castillo bounced to Theriot before Erstad went down swinging.
Although Zambrano seemed humbled and subdued, he admitted to knowing the no-hitter was in play all the way.
"I was thinking (about it) the whole game," he said. "I was watching the scoreboard every inning. In the ninth inning when I came out, the crowd was all crazy, and that helped me out a little bit.
"Thank God it was 8, 9 and the leadoff hitter, and I was able to dominate those three guys."