ST. LOUIS—After the Cubs beat St. Louis in the first game of a crucial five-game series at Wrigley Field during the 2003 stretch run, Carlos Zambrano gave a blunt assessment of their goal the rest of the week.
"We have to go out there and kill the Cardinals," he said.
While the rhetoric has been toned down a bit as the Cubs attempt to deliver a knockout blow this weekend in Busch Stadium, Zambrano certainly hasn't mellowed much over the last four years.
The Cubs ace returned to his post-punch form Friday night, holding St. Louis to one run on four hits over eight innings in a 5-3 victory before a surprisingly subdued crowd of 45,750.
Cliff Floyd's seventh-inning home run off Adam Wainwright, his third in as many games, snapped a 1-1 tie and the Cubs bullpen narrowly survived a ninth-inning meltdown.
The Cubs increased their National League Central Division lead to 1 1/2 games over Milwaukee and six over St. Louis, which has lost eight straight.
Bob Howry posted the save after Ryan Dempster struggled with a four-run lead in the ninth, allowing two home runs and a single. After Russell Branyan and So Taguchi singled off Howry to load the bases, Howry retired Aaron Miles on a grounder to short to end it.
Despite giving Dempster the hook, manager Lou Piniella said he's still his closer.
"If we have a game situation, he'll be out there [Saturday]," Piniella said.
Zambrano (16-12) won his second straight game since apologizing for ripping Cubs fans and he appears to be back in his mid-summer groove. He has allowed only two runs on six hits over his last 14 innings and his only mistake Friday was a first-pitch fastball to Albert Pujols in the sixth that resulted in an opposite-field home run.
"I've been feeling good since July," Zambrano said. "I had some bad games, but I was feeling good in those bad games, and had a little bit of bad luck, too. But that's part of the game. Thank God everything is going in the right direction now."
Daryle Ward pinch-hit for Zambrano with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth and smoked a three-run double to center off Jason Isringhausen to put the game out of reach. Ward is hitting .368 since returning from the disabled list Aug. 12, providing the Cubs with some much-needed left-handed pop off the bench.
The Cubs didn't mince words before the game when discussing their primary goal—to knock the Cardinals out of contention.
"That's what we're here for," Piniella said. "We have respect for this team, they're a world championship defending team and they have an excellent manager over there who has this team prepared to play. So obviously we know we have a tough road ahead of us, but really, that's what we're here for."
Aramis Ramirez's one-out double and Mark DeRosa's RBI single gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the fourth, and Zambrano carried a shutout into the sixth before Pujols' two-out shot tied it up.
But Floyd homered leading off the seventh to put the Cubs back on top and Ward's clutch double in the ninth gave Dempster some breathing room.
As it turned out, the Cubs needed those insurance runs. Dempster served up home runs to Jim Edmonds and Ryan Ludwick and a two-out single to Yadier Molina before he gave way to Howry. It was the third straight outing Dempster has allowed at least one run.
"Sometimes as a reliever you don't feel good," Zambrano said. "Dempster is a good pitcher for us and he has been doing a good job. He had 12 straight saves, until his last blown save. He's human. The good thing about it is I know Dempster, and he'll come back [Saturday] ready to save the game for us."