Commentary

Big Z making strides. Really.

Zambrano imploded, but spared us from a tantrum in Cubs' historically bad opener

Updated: April 6, 2010, 10:53 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

ATLANTA -- Game one of Year 1 was a hideous one for the Chicago Cubs on Monday. And, because they're the Cubs, it was not merely hideous but historically hideous.

Their 16-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves marked the worst loss for a Cubs team on Opening Day since 1884. That team lost 15-3 to New York, ended up finishing the season 62-50 and did not have to suffer the indignity of repeated replays on "SportsCenter" that night.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesCarlos Zambrano recorded just four outs on Monday and left the game with an ERA of 54.

But for those scoring at home, there is an even more unsightly Cubs-esque stat: In the past 100 years, only one team has allowed 13 or more runs on Opening Day and made the playoffs -- the 2006 A's.

Yes, it is early as they say. And the Cubs said it many times as the sun began to set early Monday evening. But the epic quality -- or lack thereof -- of this loss seemed toxic in nature, seeping into nearly every area after starter Carlos Zambrano's implosion -- hitting (five hits for a team batting average of .167), fielding (two errors), baserunning (two runners were doubled off first base), at least half the bullpen (six walks between Jeff Samardzija and Justin Berg in 1 1/3 innings).

Spotted three runs in the top half of the first when Marlon Byrd launched a three-run home run in his first at-bat as a Cub -- a first since Henry Rodriguez did it in 1998 -- Zambrano walked the first Braves batter and it was pretty much over from there.

The good news is that when Zambrano left the mound 1 1/3 innings, six hits, eight earned runs, two walks, one strikeout, one hit batter and two home runs later, he didn't break anything.

Vowing this spring to really, truly, finally change his ways and control the emotions that often seemed not to fuel his performances on the mound but rather to blow them up, Zambrano walked off the field calmly and of his own accord.

He was just as composed afterward.

"I was nice and calm," he said. "I was trying to do my job, and unfortunately I couldn't do it today, but it already happened, and I can only think about Cincinnati now."

Carlos Zambrano I was nice and calm. I was trying to do my job, and unfortunately I couldn't do it today, but it already happened, and I can only think about Cincinnati now.

-- Carlos Zambrano

The rest of us, however, are free to think about other things, such as the fact Zambrano is now 1-5 in his past (franchise-high) six Opening Day starts for the Cubs. The fact Cubs manager Lou Piniella had to empty his bullpen in the first game of the season.

Asked if he still wanted the ball on Opening Day, Zambrano correctly pointed out that he won last season and has three no-decisions. He did not mention the 1-1 record and 17 earned runs in those five previous games, a 5.88 ERA that actually looks terrific compared to Monday's performance.

"Whatever the Cubs want to do," he said. "I just want to have ball every five days and do my job."

He does admit, however, that Aprils have not been kind to him.

"Kind of, but I have the tools to pitch good in April," he said. "I just had a bad game and that's it. Put it behind me. Today I gave up eight runs. I will concentrate for my next start. That's it. There's nothing I can do about it."

While Atlanta's rookie phenom Jason Heyward lived up to his billing with a three-run homer in his first major league at-bat, and finished 2 for 5 with four RBIs, Zambrano -- again calmly -- dismissed it by saying: "Anyone can do good on two balls and one strike. At same time, you have to give him credit. But for me and for him, it's not how you start, it's how you finish. You can struggle in the season but your team can go to the playoffs and you can be a hero in the playoffs."

Just the same, even after 41 years in the big leagues, Piniella had to admit this was not your run-of-the-mill Opening Day, made just a little more excruciating with new owners Tom and Todd Ricketts in attendance.

"I never envisioned giving up 16 runs on Opening Day," he said. "I mean, never. Never in my wildest dreams. Sixteen runs. We pitched really well all spring and not only did we pitch well but we threw strikes and we got ahead of the hitters and today was the complete opposite …

"[Zambrano] is certainly capable of doing a heck of a lot better. I thought, 'Well, we got three runs, now we shut them down for a few innings, add a few more runs, and we're in pretty good shape.' And before we know it, we're down 8-3."

Among the few bright spots were the outings of Sean Marshall, who temporarily halted the carnage in relief of Zambrano with five strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings of splendid pitching, and the major league debut of James Russell, who followed that up by striking out one in two innings of scoreless ball.

But finding bright spots in a 16-5 loss, unless you're related to Byrd, Marshall or Russell, is futile and sort of sad.

The Cubs made a little noise about the clearly blown call in the sixth inning when umpires ruled a trapped ball was caught by Braves centerfielder Nate McLouth.

"It was tough because it was a three-run game at the time and we would have had first and second with no outs," said Aramis Ramirez, who was 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs. "And you never know what's going to happen."

But in the end, there was little spirit in that fight, as well.

"I thought he trapped the ball," Piniella said. "That's what I saw and as I went out there, it was vivid right in front of the [scoreboard] replay, and I told the umpire 'Just look at the replay, and you'll get the correct call.'

"But look, that wasn't why we lost the game. We lost the ballgame because we didn't pitch and we walked way, way too many people."

The Cubs have the day off Tuesday, which is an awful long time to think about Monday, and several players expressed that indeed, they would rather be back at it the day after to wipe out the memory.

But not Piniella as he cracked his first smile.

"I think I'd rather have the day off [Tuesday]," he said. "We'll be at it soon enough on Wednesday."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.