Zambrano to start third straight opener
Chicago (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0), Monday, 1:10 p.m. CT
Maybe the third time is the charm for Carlos Zambrano.
Zambrano will make his third consecutive Opening Day start Monday when the Cubs begin the season against the Cincinnati Reds. The right-hander is the first Cubs pitcher to start consecutive season openers since Jon Lieber did so from 2000-02. But Big Z has yet to get a decision.
In 2005, the Cubs opened against Arizona, and Zambrano gave up three runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings while striking out eight. Last year against the Reds, Zambrano served up five runs on seven hits over 4 2/3 innings while striking out five. The Cubs won both games, but Zambrano didn't last long enough to pick up the "W."
"It's my third Opening Day, and hopefully I can win this time," Zambrano said. "It's special when you pitch the first game for your team. You want to contribute to your team."
One win in April would be an improvement. Zambrano was 0-2 with a 5.35 ERA in six starts in the first month in 2006. He pitched for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, but doesn't blame the extra workload for his slow start.
"I don't think the [World Baseball Classic] had anything to do with that," Zambrano said. "It's just the mental part. Every year you learn something. Last year, I learned that the first month is very important for a pitcher and for a team. That's what we've been talking about. The first month, go out and play well, and when the hot months come, we'll be ready for anything."
Zambrano, 25, is the right choice for the Opening Day start if pitchers are judged solely on bravado. After Zambrano's first Cactus League start, when he went two innings, he said he felt strong enough to go nine. He also made two predictions -- he was going to win the Cy Young and the Cubs would win the World Series. Pretty bold statements.
"Right. I'm saying that," Zambrano said. "I'm almost sure about that."
Wait -- almost sure?
"I say, almost sure," he said. "I promise I will do the best I can. I feel good this year, better than the last five years. I will work on that."
Zambrano can be a little animated on the mound. Is that OK with Cubs manager Lou Piniella?
"You've got an emotional manager, for God's sake," Piniella said. "Sure, I like an emotional pitcher. I like having emotional players on my team. Why not? You can't have 25 Stepford Wives. What you want are basically a combination of different personalities on the team."
As long as he doesn't waste that energy. Asked if Zambrano was more mature this year, Cubs catcher Henry Blanco smirked.
"A little bit," Blanco said.
OK, so he's still a big kid. This spring, Zambrano sprinted through the clubhouse before a game at an American League park because he had a lot of energy. He's been used as a pinch-hitter on a day he wasn't pitching. On March 12, he tried to stretch what should've been a stand-up double into a triple -- and was thinking inside-the-park home run -- against the Giants.
The Cubs held their breath when Zambrano crashed into the dirt between second and third, landing on his left shoulder. Third base coach Mike Quade admitted his stomach was in his throat when he saw the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder charging at him, and then falling.
"That's the price you pay for a guy who loves to play," Quade said.
Zambrano can only go full speed ahead.
"I think if he can learn to handle his emotions, I think he'll be better," Blanco said. "There's no doubt about that. Everybody says the same thing. Let's hope he realizes that this year in trying to be the No. 1 guy."
He does love Wrigley Field. Zambrano is 22-10 with a 2.72 ERA at home over the last three years, compared to 21-15 with a 3.38 ERA on the road. Zambrano and Michael Barrett will be the Cubs' Opening Day battery for the third consecutive season opener. The last pair to do that was Rick Sutcliffe and Jody Davis, who combined for four season openers from 1985-88.
Zambrano could win a Cy Young Award. He won 16 games last year to match his career high, and struck out a career-high 210 batters. He also walked a National League-high 115 batters, and this spring has tried to be more aggressive with his pitches. He has cut down the walks.
"He has the stuff -- he has unbelievable stuff," Blanco said. "If he can control his emotions on the mound, he'll be a better pitcher and have better results."
|Cubs probable lineup|
CHC: RHP Carlos Zambrano, 16-7, 3.41 ERA in 2006
3-2, 3.76 ERA in 2006 vs. CIN
8-5, 2.80 ERA lifetime vs. CIN
CIN: RHP Aaron Harang, 16-11, 3.76 ERA in 2006
1-1, 5.14 ERA in 2006 vs. CHC
5-1, 4.26 ERA lifetime vs. CHC
WGN 720 AM
Wednesday: Cubs (Ted Lilly, 15-13, 4.31 in 2006) at Reds (Bronson Arroyo, 14-11, 3.29 in 2006), 6:10 p.m. CT
Thursday: Cubs (Jason Marquis, 14-16, 6.02) at Reds (Eric Milton, 8-8, 5.19 in 2006), 11:35 a.m. CT
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.