Big Z's big moment was unprecedented _ a no-hitter at a neutral site.
The crowd, however, was about as neutral as Harry Caray in his heyday.
Carlos Zambrano pitched the Chicago Cubs' first no-hitter in 36 years Sunday night, returning from a sore rotator cuff to shut down the Houston Astros 5-0 in a game relocated from Houston to Milwaukee because of Hurricane Ike.
It was baseball's first neutral-site no-hitter, the Elias Sports Bureau said. But it seemed like just about everyone in the crowd of 23,441 who saw it happen followed the Cubs up I-94 to turn Miller Park into Wrigley North, chanting "Let's go Z!" as each out brought Zambrano closer to a sliver of baseball history.
"Playing here in Milwaukee, we knew the crowd would be on our side," Zambrano said. "In the same way, we feel bad for the Astros, for the hurricane and all that's been happening in Houston. But we have to continue and we have to keep playing baseball."
The storm forced baseball to move two games from Texas to Miller Park, and Astros manager Cecil Cooper acknowledged that the ordeal took a toll on his team.
Cooper acknowledged Zambrano's strong performance but was quick to point out that his team has spent the past few days hunkered down with their families to ride out the storm and its aftermath. They arrived in Milwaukee only hours before the first pitch.
And while the Astros batted last as the "home" team, the game's atmosphere was a few ivy strands short of the full Wrigley experience. The crowd was so pro-Cub that a fan wearing a Brewers jersey was booed when he appeared on the video board in center field.
"This is not a home game," Cooper said. "This is definitely an advantage for the Cubs and that's saying it as mildly as possible."
The Cubs took a 7 1/2-game lead in the NL Central over the fading Brewers, who were swept in a day-night doubleheader at Philadelphia.
The Astros fell two games behind the Brewers and Phillies, who are tied in the wild-card race. Houston had won six in a row and 14 of 15.
Zambrano's performance was as unexpected as it was unprecedented.
Zambrano (14-5) hadn't pitched since Sept. 2 because of shoulder inflammation and rotator cuff tendinitis _ a sign, fans fretted, that rotten Cubbie luck had struck once again. The fact that the Cubs had won only three of their last 11 games going into Sunday didn't do much to quell their angst.
"We needed that," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "We had been struggling. And to do this, it's special."
With Zambrano's health so closely tied to the Cubs' playoff chances, Piniella just wanted a solid outing from his ace.
"You want him to get some good work in and obviously to win a baseball game," Piniella said. "But you don't expect a masterpiece like this one."
Piniella planned to limit the 27-year-old Venezuelan to 100 pitches in his return to the rotation. Having recently had an anti-inflammatory shot, Zambrano managed to come close _ he threw 110 pitches, 73 for strikes.
Piniella wasn't about to take him out.
"What can I do?" Piniella said. "I was even hesitant to warm someone up."
So what did Sunday's performance mean to Zambrano?
"I guess I'm back!" he woofed.
Catcher Geovany Soto agreed: Same old Z.
"That's the Zambrano we know," Soto said.
Zambrano dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky with both hands after getting Darin Erstad to swing and miss for his season-high 10th strikeout. The big right-hander was immediately mobbed on the mound by his teammates.
Until then, Zambrano _ who is known for his emotional displays on the mound _ was remarkably reserved. "I'm the kind of person, when I make a mistake I don't like, sometimes I don't excuse myself," he said.
But Zambrano's only real display of emotion Sunday came after he struck out swinging in the seventh, then motioned as if he was going to break the bat over his knee.
He saw the look on his manager's face and got the message: "Some other game, but not today," Zambrano said.
Earlier, Zambrano made an offensive contribution in the Cubs' four-run third inning, singling and then chugging home from first on Lee's double. The Cubs chased Randy Wolf (10-12) in the third, his shortest outing of the season.
Zambrano walked one and hit a batter in the Cubs' first no-hitter since Milt Pappas against San Diego in 1972. This was the 13th no-hitter in team history, including five in the late 1800s, and the second in the majors this season _ Boston's Jon Lester did it against Kansas City at Fenway Park on May 19.
It also was the first no-hitter at Miller Park, and the Brewers were nowhere to be found.
The Astros barely came close to a hit. David Newhan lined a drive that first baseman Derrek Lee jumped to catch to end the fifth inning. Zambrano also fretted when Geoff Blum sent a fly ball toward the right-field corner to lead off the eighth, but Mark DeRosa tracked it down.
Zambrano helped himself with his glove, too, charging off the mound and across the first-base line to catch Hunter Pence's foul pop for the second out in the eighth.
Zambrano began the ninth by getting Humberto Quintero to ground out on one pitch, his 100th of the game. After pinch-hitter Jose Castillo also grounded out, Erstad chased a split-fingered fastball low-and-away for Zambrano's first shutout since 2004.
With his jersey untucked, Zambrano paraded triumphantly through a series of interviews in front of the Cubs dugout, then waved to the still-cheering crowd as he walked down the steps.
The win could be yet another sign of good things to come for the NL Central-leading Cubs, whose fans have gotten used to doing more crying than cheering in September during 100 years worth of World Series frustration.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.