Commentary

Zambrano gets Game 2 start...and needs to deliver

Updated: September 30, 2008, 6:23 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The stunner isn't that Carlos Zambrano is the Chicago Cubs' starter for Game 2 of the NLDS. The stunner is that he wasn't dropped to Game 3, or, I kid you not, even Game 4.

The decision to have Zambrano follow Ryan Dempster in the playoff rotation must have been a toughie for manager Lou Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild. They're dealing with a proud, spectacularly gifted player who can no-hit lineups or -- and this is what gives you the heebie jeebies about him -- leave crater marks from the latest implosion. What helps make Zambrano, well, Zambrano -- his emotionalism -- is also what overpowers the man himself.

The Cubs say Zambrano is healthy. His catcher, Geovany Soto, says Zambrano is healthy. Zambrano says … nothing.

"Not talking today," he says, when approached recently in the clubhouse. "Not talking tomorrow." And then he walks away.

Fair enough. If he doesn't want to talk, he doesn't want to talk.

But the numbers speak for him, and right now they're saying the Cubs are taking, at best, a calculated risk by pitching him second in the NLDS rotation. At worst, they're risking another mound meltdown and depriving the more consistent Ted Lilly of his rightful place in the No. 2 spot.

Piniella is a smart baseball guy, even if he does have his share of Lou-isms ("The fans turn out in groves."... Wrigley Field has "ivory" walls ... "It's progress in motion.") He understands these Cubs, and he understands the fragile baseball enigma that is Zambrano.

On performance alone, the rotation should be Dempster, Lilly, Rich Harden and then Zambrano. Instead, it's Dempster, Z, Harden and then Lilly. But other factors could be at work here, beginning with Zambrano's pride.

Zambrano has been the Cubs' Opening Day starter in each of the last four seasons. He was the Cubs' Game 1 NLDS starter a year ago and made three playoff starts in 2003. A little more than two weeks ago he threw the first Cubs no-hitter since 1972.

But the flip side is this: He's never won any of those four Opening Day starts (5.57 ERA in 21 innings). He's never won any of those four postseason starts. Since his Sept. 14 no-hitter he's given up 13 runs and allowed seven walks in 6 1/3 innings. Since the All-Star break his ERA has more than doubled (from 2.84 in the first half to 5.80 in the second half) and his win total has decreased by more than half (10 in the first half, four in the second). It's also the first time in the last six seasons that Zambrano hasn't reached the 200-innings pitched mark.

Kurkjian: Five questions

Want answers to the top five questions heading into the Dodgers-Cubs National League Division Series? ESPN's Tim Kurkjian has them. Story
Dodgers-Cubs series page
Scouting: Dodgers Insider | Cubs Insider

So, yes, the numbers scream something. So does Zambrano's 2008 medical history: a disabled list appearance in June, an anti-inflammatory injection in his pitching shoulder in early September. And maybe I'm reading too much into it, but did you notice that Zambrano backed out of this past Sunday's start (it would have been two innings, tops) in favor of a long-toss session?

Now then, combine those stats and red flags with Zambrano's on-field personality and you get a baseball Molotov cocktail. And just in time for the playoffs.

Zambrano breaks bats over his knee in anger. Dugout water coolers run for cover when he's pulled during a bad start. His career includes two MLB-imposed suspensions (2002, 2004) and one dugout/clubhouse whupping of catcher Michael Barrett.

The latest Zambrano hissy fit came Sept. 19, after he gave up 8 runs to St. Louis in just 1 2/3 innings. Piniella actually had to point the childish Zambrano back to the mound for the ball exchange.

This maddening inconsistency and immaturity is what should scare the Cubs as the playoffs begin. Will you get dominant Z? Will you get, "I-see-dead-people" Z, who yells at himself or other demons? Will you get self-destructive Z?

These are the questions Piniella and Rothschild faced as they set up their NLDS rotation. In the end, they took a leap of faith. And this being the mentally delicate Zambrano, maybe they were worried about what dropping him to the No. 3 spot would do to his confidence.

"Look, the guy basically he competes," said Piniella. "Sometimes it detracts from his abilities. Hopefully in the postseason he'll pitch very well for us. We need him to pitch very well."

I don't trust Zambrano. Yes, he threw a no-hitter Sept. 14. He did it after that anti-inflam shot, two missed starts and 12 days of rest. And then he flamed out during his next two starts. Now what?

"Whenever October rolls around he steps up," said Soto. "He's one of our leaders. He loves big games and he's made to pitch big games. I have total confidence in him whenever he's on the mound."

Health isn't the problem. Soto says Zambrano's arm strength is fine, but that he had "a little bit of a control issue."

This isn't so much about Zambrano's finding the strike zone as it is his finding some sort of equilibrium on the mound. When things go poorly, he has a habit of unraveling like dental floss from a spool.

Zambrano's strength is often his weakness. He relies on his right arm, but also on his emotions. If you put a radar gun on those emotions, you'd get triple-digit readings.

"What I've seen is his competitiveness," says the thoughtful Lilly, whose on-mound demeanor is the polar opposite of Zambrano.

I tell Lilly that Zambrano's antics sometimes make me want to jump off the Sears Tower. The tantrums drive me crazy.

"You might not be the only one," he said. "But when it's Carlos' turn to pitch, I enjoy it. ... You pretty much know what he's thinking throughout the game. It's kind of fun to watch. Maybe that wouldn't make him a great poker player."

If Zambrano isn't more careful, it might not make him much of a playoff pitcher, either.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter