Cubs defeat Sox, 5-1, on South Side in first game of cross-town series

Combine one potentially dominant pitcher and one of baseball’s worst offenses, and what you get is arguably the best pitching performance in the 10-year history of the Cubs-White Sox crosstown series.

Carlos Zambrano set the tone early in Friday’s game at U.S. Cellular Field by striking out the first four hitters he faced. It then became seven of the first nine.

By the time the right-hander was done after eight innings, he’d tied a career-high with 12 strikeouts, allowed just one run on three hits and helped the Cubs to a 5-1 win in front of a sellout crowd of 39,046.

“Tell you what, it was nasty,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “He had some really good movement on his fastball, threw some really nice breaking balls, his split — some of them actually fell off the table. Really, really good stuff.”

While it was just the Cubs’ second win in their last six games, it was the Sox’s 20th loss in their last 25 outings.

The majority of those 20 losses are thanks to the Sox’s slumbering bats, but of all the pitchers they haven’t hit this year — and there have been many — Zambrano may have been the best.

“You know what to expect when Carlos is on the mound, and he’s incredible,” said the Sox’s A.J. Pierzynski, who went 1-for-3 against “Big Z” on Friday. “He had the best stuff I’ve probably seen all year.”

Zambrano (8-6) knew it was going to be that type of day right off the bat.

“My money pitch was a sinker,” Zambrano said. “That pitch was working for me. I knew I would have a good game.”

The free-agent-to-be has had plenty of those recently after struggling earlier in the year.

In fact, since getting into a much-publicized fight with former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett on June 1, Zambrano is 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA and has allowed just 13 hits while striking out 35 in 31 2/3 innings.

“You have to have pride — all players have pride,” said Zambrano, who on Friday threw 113 pitches, 74 for strikes. “It was embarrassing, what I did. I said, ‘That’s enough.’ I was still looking like crap. I was still looking like just another player. I’m an All-Star. I’m a good pitcher. And I have to settle down and shut it off and start a new season.

“I shut the door completely. I’m a new pitcher. Whatever happened in the past is in the past. I’m looking forward to the future.”

Thanks to Alfonso Soriano’s 36th career leadoff homer and another first-inning solo shot by Aramis Ramirez in his first game since coming off the disabled list, Zambrano had a 2-0 lead to work with before he took the mound.

The right-hander didn’t allow a hit until Tadahito Iguchi’s single in the fourth and a run until Paul Konerko’s solo homer in the seventh.

“I was saying, ‘There we go again,’ ” Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. “I turned around to (bench coach) Joey Cora in the fifth and I said, ‘I hope he doesn’t throw a no-hitter.’ That’s the way I feel. The way he was throwing the ball, he started getting the rhythm, and as the game went by, he got better, got the rhythm.”

The same could be said for Mark Buehrle (4-4), who allowed just two runs in seven innings while battling flu-like symptoms. The left-hander left the clubhouse after he was pulled — but before the game was over — suffering from severe dehydration.

“Take away the first inning, and he was really good,” Pierzynski said of Buehrle, who allowed four hits in seven innings. “It’s a shame that Zambrano was about as good as I’ve ever seen today.”

Yet the game was still in doubt before the Cubs took advantage of a miserable Sox bullpen in the ninth, scoring three runs. Ramirez had an RBI single off Nick Masset before Felix Pie added a two-run single off Matt Thornton.

Ryan Dempster pitched a perfect ninth to finish off Zambrano’s gem.

“He’s a great pitcher, one of the elite pitchers in the game,” said Rob Bowen, who caught Zambrano for the first time since coming over in Wednesday’s trade that sent Barrett to San Diego.

“He’s young, and he’s only getting better.”

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