(Sports Network) - Carlos Zambrano's lengthy absence from the Chicago Cubs' rotation was made a little bit longer thanks to mother nature. The weather won't prevent the fiery pitcher from making his anticipated start tonight, however, as the Cubs head to the retractable-roof facility of Houston's Minute Maid Park to start up a three-game series with the fellow National League Central-member Astros.
Zambrano, a three-time NL All-Star who's averaged better than 14 wins over the past seven seasons, was shifted to the bullpen in late April after going 1-2 with a subpar 7.45 earned run average in four starts. The excitable Venezuelan has pitched significantly better as a reliever lately, having not allowed a run in any of his last five appearances, which prompted manager Lou Piniella to insert him back into a starting role to take the place of the struggling Tom Gorzelanny.
The accomplished right-hander had been slated to pitch Wednesday's series finale at Pittsburgh, but the game was postponed due to heavy rain.
The rainout may have been a benefit to Zambrano, considering he owns a 13-7 record with an excellent 2.54 ERA in 29 career meetings (27 starts) with the Astros and is 7-3 with a 3.21 ERA over 15 games (13 starts) lifetime at Minute Maid Park. He'll also be facing a Houston team that co-holds the worst mark in the NL at 20-34 and ranks at or near the bottom of the majors in runs scored (174), batting average (.235) and home runs (31).
The Astros have been playing and hitting well lately, however, as the club enters this series fresh off a three-game home sweep of the Washington Nationals. Houston slugged three homers in Thursday's finale, the last being a two-run blast from Carlos Lee with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning that lifted the Astros to a wild 6-4 victory.
Washington struck for a pair of runs off Houston closer Matt Lindstrom in the top of the ninth to grab a 4-3 lead, but the Astros answered with a three-spot in their half of the frame to prevail. Michael Bourn scored the tying run when Nationals right fielder Cristian Guzman misplayed a line drive off the bat of Lance Berkman that would have been the final out, and Lee followed with a deep drive into the left-field seats for the improbable walk-off win.
"[The Nationals] caught a break, we caught a break too, so it worked out perfect," Lee said afterward.
Lee added an RBI single earlier in the contest, while both Berkman and Kevin Cash both socked solo homers on the afternoon.
Lindstrom (2-1) vultured the win despite allowing two runs and three hits in his lone inning of work. Brian Moehler threw the first 5 1/3 frames for Houston and held the Nats to two runs on five hits.
Piniella hopes the switch to Zambrano can help spark a Chicago squad that's lost both games in the Pittsburgh series and three in a row overall, although a lack of offense and an inability to hold late leads have been the team's two biggest problems during the slide. The Cubs scored only four times in the three defeats and squandered early advantages in each of the two setbacks to the Pirates, both of which were by one run.
Pittsburgh scored off the Chicago bullpen in both the sixth and eighth innings to rally for a 2-1 verdict on Monday, then claimed a 3-2 win on Tuesday when Neil Walker hit a two-run homer off starter Ted Lilly in the bottom of the eighth.
The loss was the fifth in seven games for the Cubs, who fell to a disappointing 24-29 on the season.
"It's frustrating on everyone," said outfielder Xavier Nady, who went 4-for-4 and accounted for all of Chicago's scoring with a two-run homer in the third inning. "You plan on getting big hits and getting things going. But offensively, we're not doing it, there's no way around it."
Lilly (1-5) lasted 7 2/3 innings in Tuesday's test and surrendered all three runs on six hits, while striking out six and walking four.
Chicago will attempt to break out of its present slump in tonight's matchup against Felipe Paulino, who's still in search of his first win of 2010. The hard-throwing righty hasn't performed like a pitcher with an 0-7 record as of late, though, having yielded just four runs over a combined 20 innings in his past three mound trips.
Paulino has been the victim of poor run support in each of his last two starts. He fired eight shutout innings at Cincinnati this past Sunday before leaving with the game still scoreless, and limited Milwaukee to two runs through six frames in a hard-luck 2-1 defeat back on May 25.
The 26-year-old permitted just one run over the first six innings in an April 16 encounter with the Cubs at Wrigley Field, but was charged with four more runs while failing to record an out in the seventh to take the loss in a 7-2 decision that afternoon.
Paulino also lost his only other career start against the Cubs, which took place in Wrigley last September, although he did give up only two runs on four hits and fanned seven in a six-inning stint.
Houston took two of three from the Cubs when these teams squared off in Chicago from April 16-18, but dropped five of eight tilts between the clubs held at Minute Maid Park last season.