Reds clipped by Cubs 4-3 on pinch-hit homer

AP Baseball Writer

CINCINNATI (AP) The shoulder was strong, the legs were fresh. Carlos Zambrano felt like he was taking the mound for the first time this season.

Pretty darn close.

Zambrano recovered from his horrific opening day start by pitching seven solid innings, and pinch-hitter Jeff Baker hit a tiebreaking homer in the eighth Saturday, sending the Chicago Cubs to a 4-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Zambrano (1-1) managed only four outs during the Cubs’ 16-5 opening-day drubbing in Atlanta, a performance so fast and so futile – eight runs – that he spent the rest of the week aching for another chance. The right-hander held the Reds to six hits, including Brandon Phillips’ homer, and struck out nine.

“I think I was fresh from the last time,” Zambrano said. “Basically, this was my first start. I was excited today. I was hungry to go out there. My first outing was not good. I was anxious to go out there and pitch my game, and I did it today.”

His solid start allowed the Cubs to stay away from the unproven middle of their bullpen. John Grabow allowed one hit in the eighth, and Carlos Marmol struck out three in the ninth for his second save in as many chances.

“From what we’ve experienced here the first five games, our starting pitcher going seven innings is probably the best remedy,” manager Lou Piniella said. “We’ll get the kids (relievers) work from time to time and get them sharp and hope they improve.”

Baker hit his solo shot off left-hander Arthur Rhodes (0-1), Chicago’s third homer of the game. Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano also connected off Aaron Harang.

Baker saw a little bit of everything in his first at-bat off the bench this season. Rhodes threw him a changeup away, a fastball in and a slider that was down but over the plate.

“I don’t really try to do too much (while) pinch-hitting,” said Baker, who now has three career homers in that role. “More likely than not, you’re going to fail. It’s just about getting a good pitch and not missing it.”

Rhodes wasn’t too upset at the decisive pitch to Baker.

“Most guys come off the bench looking for a first-pitch fastball, so I started him out with a changeup,” Rhodes said. “Then I threw him a fastball and a slider down and away, and he went down and got it.”

Both starters were coming off tough times in their season openers. Harang usually gets the better of these matchups – Zambrano was 1-5 in seven career starts against the Reds’ ace coming in.

This time, they ended up essentially even, each giving up three runs in seven innings. Baker’s homer – his first hit in five at-bats this season – put Zambrano in line for the win.

The Cubs’ lineup has been overly reliant on homers so far, scoring 12 of its 17 runs that way. Five of Saturday’s starters came in batting .200 or less – Aramis Ramirez (.200), Marlon Byrd (.167), Geovany Soto (.167), Soriano (.143) and Ryan Theriot (.125).

The homer-or-nothing trend continued. Fukudome hit a two-run shot in the fourth, and Soriano led off the fifth with a homer that tied it at 3.

Harang lasted only five innings of a season-opening 11-6 loss to the Cardinals on Monday, throwing a lot of pitches. This time, he wasn’t messing around. Harang’s first seven pitches were strikes. He retired the first nine Cubs in order, throwing 29 strikes in 38 pitches.

“You learn from the rough patches,” Harang said. “You learn from your mistakes and just go out and do what you can.”

NOTES: Zambrano threw 110 pitches. … LH Ted Lilly’s rehab start in the minors has been pushed back a second time because of his sore back. Lilly, on the 15-day DL following shoulder surgery, was expected to pitch on Sunday for Triple-A Iowa. Instead, he’ll try to throw in a bullpen on Monday. … Reds 3B Scott Rolen got a day off. He’s a .182 career hitter against Zambrano. … RH Mike Leake, the Reds’ top draft pick last June, will make his debut on Sunday. Leake pitched for Arizona State last year. He’ll be the 21st player since the draft began in 1965 to make the jump without appearing in a minor league game. The last was Xavier Nady with San Diego in 2000. … RF Jay Bruce is in an 0 for 16 slump, one shy of his career high.

Updated April 10, 2010