Zambrano looks to take next step
Cubs ace a different pitcher from one who threw in '03 playoffs
PHOENIX -- Openers have not been Carlos Zambrano's specialty. Nor, for that matter, have postseason games. But Zambrano, his manager and his teammates would rather have no one else on the mound when the Cubs open their National League Division Series against the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night.
"Carlos is made for these type of events," said rookie catcher Geovany Soto, who will be Zambrano's backstop on Wednesday.
Zambrano did not face the D-backs during the regular season and he will be facing a team composed largely of hitters who have never seen him. The Diamondbacks' starting lineup has a grand total of eight at-bats against Zambrano. Beyond that, he's going against a team that ranked 14th in the National League in runs scored, despite playing in one of the circuit's best ballparks for hitters.
That magnifies the need for "Big Z" to simply pitch his game. If he throws strikes -- Zambrano has walked more than 100 hitters in each of the past two seasons -- and keeps the ball down, it's unlikely that Arizona will be able to hurt him.
However, Zambrano has not found much success in postseason games and openers to this point in his career. In three career postseason starts, Zambrano is 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA. In three Opening Day starts, he has more ejections (one) than wins (zero), and an 8.16 ERA.
All of Zambrano's previous playoff games came in 2003, when he was a 22-year-old in his first full season as a big league starter. But the Opening Day starts are all recent -- he was the No. 1 man for Chicago in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In '05, his first Opening Day start, he was ejected from a game at Arizona after he allowed 11 baserunners in 4 2/3 innings.
So why should this time turn out differently? Zambrano may have hit on one reason: The famously demonstrative right-hander wants to keep things a little more composed this time around.
"I don't want to be pumped up," Zambrano said. "I want to be calm and let the moment come and let the game come and pitch my game. I don't want to be too excited. ... Sometimes when you are too excited, you try to do too much, and that's when the problem comes. You don't have control of yourself."
When Zambrano controls himself -- and his pitches -- he's absolutely overwhelming. He has the capacity to dominate a lineup like few pitchers anywhere in baseball. He just doesn't always harness that ability. This season provides ample evidence of that, as Zambrano went 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA in July, then followed that up with an 0-4, 7.06 line in August.
He's come on lately, however, ending the year with a 13-inning shutout streak. Zambrano pitched, and pitched brilliantly, in the Cubs' biggest game of the year. His last regular-season start was a win over the Reds in which he pitched seven scoreless innings, struck out four and walked one. That game, combined with the Brewers' loss later in the evening, secured Chicago's first postseason appearance in four years.
It may be an advantage that Zambrano has at least been here before. Although the '03 postseason didn't turn out all that well for the pitcher or his teammates, nothing about it will catch him off guard.
He also has a couple of additional weapons for going after hitters. Zambrano has added a cut fastball and the ability to change speeds on his slider since those '03 games.
"I've enjoyed watching him pitch this year," said manager Lou Piniella. "At times, he fights himself a little bit. But I'll tell you what, he competes. He cares about pitching well. He's won 18 ballgames for us. That's a lot of ballgames to win. So I've got confidence he's going to go out and really pitch a good ballgame tomorrow."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.