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10/02/08 12:32 AM ET

Cubs rely on big Game 2 start by Big Z

Bumped from Game 1 nod, righty must prevent 0-2 deficit

CHICAGO -- The Cubs turn to a man with an 18.47 ERA in his last two starts to avoid going down 0-2. They're comfortable with that.

"[Carlos Zambrano is] our horse," second baseman Mark DeRosa said. "He'll go out there and take the ball and throw the way he's capable of throwing."

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They're more than comfortable. They're confident.

"He's going to be good," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "He's been good ever since I've been here."

He better be good. Teams that lose Game 1 of the National League Division Series have come back to win the series three times in 26 tries since 1995. Hopes are pinned on Zambrano to guide the club to a Game 2 victory to knot the Dodgers, 1-1. He's opposed by Los Angeles right-hander Chad Billingsley, who is making his first career postseason start Thursday night.

"0-2 going to L.A. is going to be tough, especially in a short series like this with five games," shortstop Ryan Theriot said. "[Thursday] is a big one. Luckily we've got a guy going [Thursday] that can really throw the ball. That makes you feel good right there."

Zambrano has evolved into quite the big-game pitcher after compiling a 5.40 ERA in three 2003 postseason starts as a green 22-year-old. He pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings on Opening Day six months ago. In the 2007 NLDS, he held Arizona to one run in six frames. Still, that's no reason to get overconfident.

"Sometimes experience don't count," Zambrano said. "There's people that have a lot of experience in the playoffs and still haven't performed as good."

He has to hope recent experience doesn't count, either. His last two outings have been clunkers, a combined 13 runs in 6 1/3 innings.

"What games?" Zambrano said when asked about the poor starts. "It's in the past. This is a new age, new stage for the Cubs, new ballgame, new team."

NLDS History
Being up 1-0 in the Division Series is certainly great news for the Dodgers and Phillies, given the 23-3 record posted by teams who have won Game 1 in the Wild Card era. It's even better news for the Dodgers, since only the 1999 Braves lost Game 1 at home and rebounded to win the series (sorry, Cubs fans).
Won Game 1: 23-3
Won Game 1 on road: 12-1
Won Game 1 at home: 11-2

He was excellent for nine no-hit innings in his start against the Astros on Sept. 14 before the struggles. Zambrano then flew to Venezuela for his grandmother's funeral and returned less than 24 hours before his next turn, when he lasted a season-low 1 2/3 and gave up eight runs to the Cardinals. Manager Lou Piniella thought Zambrano was jetlagged.

"When you take a trip to Venezuela and you have a return trip the next day, and you're in the air for 15 hours, your legs can get sort of dead, and to me that's a pretty good explanation for what happened," Piniella said.

Zambrano hasn't thrown in a game since Sept. 24. Piniella wanted to give him two innings in Sunday's season finale to prevent rust, but that plan was scratched Saturday.

Zambrano's argument against the tuneup? He requires a lot of warmup pitches to throw in a game regardless of how many innings he's scheduled for.

"Pitching Sunday and pitching Thursday, it would be like three days' rest, so we don't need that," Zambrano said. "I think I need myself, and this ballclub, needs me to be fresh. So that's why I didn't pitch on Sunday. Plus we were in the playoffs already, so we didn't need that game. So why take some risk in that game?"

Zambrano later made it a point to mention that he told Piniella he could do "whatever you want me to do" on Sunday.

"I talked to [Piniella], and I asked him if he wanted me to pitch and wanted me to be out there," Zambrano said. "He said, 'No, I don't want to take a risk.'"

If you look at his entire body of work, and not just the turbulent September, Zambrano (14-6) put up another solid season. In 30 starts, he compiled a 3.91 ERA while fighting arm issues at multiple junctures. His record against the Dodgers wasn't as solid, 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA in two outings. Zambrano is looking for a fresh start.

Wrigley Field, 8:30 p.m. CT
Dodgers starter: RHP Chad Billingsley
2008: 16-10, 3.14 ERA
2008 on road: 6-6, 3.33 ERA
2008 vs. Cubs: 0-1, 4.91 ERA
Career vs. Cubs: 1-1, 3.60 ERA
Career postseason: 0-0, 0.00 (two relief appearances)
Cubs starter: RHP Carlos Zambrano
2008: 14-6, 3.91 ERA
2008 at home: 7-2, 3.77 ERA
2008 vs. Dodgers: 0-1, 4.91 ERA
Career vs. Dodgers: 2-3, 3.75 ERA
Career postseason: 0-1, 4.37 ERA (four starts)
Dodgers lead series, 1-0. The team that has won Game 1 of an NLDS is 23-3 in those series.
Game 1: Dodgers 7, Cubs 2
Did You Know? The Dodgers' win in Game 1 gave them the all-time head-to-head series lead over the Cubs 1,013-1,012.

"This is a new season for us beginning today," he said. "My record, anybody's record, today it doesn't count. What counts is what we start today, and that's all that matters."

Zambrano used to be a Game 1 starter, case closed.

He started the opener of the 2007 NLDS. He took the mound on Opening Day in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

But Zambrano did not get the nod for Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS with the Dodgers. That went to Ryan Dempster, who had been the team's best starter all season, but was unable to make it out of the fifth on Wednesday. That puts more of a burden on Zambrano.

"We need Zambrano to go out there and pitch a good ballgame for us tomorrow and get us to our short relief," Piniella said. "I thought one of the keys in this series was for the starting pitchers to go deep into the game. [Wednesday] obviously that didn't happen."

The decision to pitch Zambrano a day later might have something to do with his 5.80 second-half ERA. The fiery Venezuelan didn't question the playoff rotation.

"We have four quality starters, and like Lou told me, each of the starting pitchers that we have here can start the first game," Zambrano said before Wednesday's game. "He decided to go with Dempster, and I agreed with him. I don't have any problem."

It's hard to estimate which Zambrano will show up on Thursday, the Carlos that looked lost in his last two starts or the Carlos that no-hit the league's hottest team at the time. So, Carlos, what's it going to be?

"First-pitch strike and challenge the hitters," he said. "If my sinker is working, everything will be different."

Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.