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03/12/09 6:25 PM ET

Zambrano gets Opening Day nod

Right-hander given Cubs' assignment for fifth straight year

MESA, Ariz. -- Carlos Zambrano will make his fifth straight Opening Day start for the Cubs on April 6 at Houston.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella announced the decision on Thursday, picking Zambrano over Ryan Dempster. Zambrano tuned up by giving up three hits over four innings against Team Japan in an exhibition game at HoHoKam Park.

"It's an honor," Zambrano said of the assignment. "I will do my best to win the game. I'm winless on Opening Day, and I will try to do my best."

Rick Sutcliffe was the last Cubs pitcher to make five Opening Day starts, doing so 1985-89.

"I talked to both pitchers," Piniella said. "We came up with the conclusion that this would be the best way to go."

Zambrano will be followed by Dempster, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden in the rotation with the fifth starter to be determined. Because the Cubs will skip the No. 5 starter in the first turn, Lilly is in line to start the home opener April 13 against Colorado.

"There's no ace on this team," Zambrano said. "Dempster won [17] games last year, and there's Rich Harden, who was the ace in the Oakland organization, and you've got Ted Lilly also. You have four quality starters, four aces. We have to take care of business and do what we can during the season to win as many games as possible."

Dempster was the Cubs' Game 1 starter in the National League Division Series against Los Angeles in 2008.

"Dempster was a little disappointed, and rightfully so," Piniella said of the right-hander. "He's happy doing whatever we need. He'll be pitching the second day."

Dempster handled the news as one would expect -- with a laugh.

"Do you want to start Opening Day?" he said to Micah Hoffpauir, who quickly admitted he would like the assignment. "But I'm cool with it. I pitch once every five days. It doesn't matter when I pitch. My ego doesn't ever get hurt with stuff like that.

"I never expected to start Opening Day," he said. "I really don't care. Get there, get healthy. I can go to 'Wrestlemania' now on Sunday night in Houston. There's a positive side to everything."

Zambrano joked that he and Dempster competed on the side for the honor.

"We played different sports," Zambrano said. "He beat me in hockey, and I beat him in a home run contest, then we played soccer and we tied. He's a good soccer player.

"I don't like him anyway," Zambrano said, trying to sound serious. "He doesn't like me, I don't like him. Who cares about him?"

He was kidding.

The Cubs did let Zambrano hit on Thursday against Japan, and he went 0-for-2, striking out both times. Teams have been using the designated hitter in the World Baseball Classic.

"If I use the [designated hitter] today, I'd have a big headache," Piniella said. "We'll let Carlos get his at-bats."

Zambrano, who won his second Silver Slugger award last season, hates to miss an opportunity to hit.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.