Keeping score, Zambrano bursting with confidence

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Keeping score, Zambrano bursting with confidence

Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010
1:24 AM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

SAN DIEGO This was Carlos Zambranos 294th game in a Cubs uniform, but the first time his mother, who traveled from Venezuela, could actually sit in the stands and watch him pitch.

Zambrano called it a special night after Mondays 1-0 victory over the San Diego Padres, and his mind wandered to several different places. He thanked God for the way his season is ending, quoted the pitching philosophy of Greg Maddux and mentioned how a newspaper reporter had recently described him as a former ace.

You can count and see if Im the former ace or if Im still the ace of this team, Zambrano said. I still have confidence in myself and all my pitches are working right now.

Chicago has understandably shifted its attention to the Bears and locked in on Monday Night Football. During the seasons final week, the real interest in the Cubs (71-85) will come from out-of-town markets.

But Zambrano is still a reason to tune in and not just to see if he does anything crazy in the dugout. With seven more scoreless innings against the Padres (87-69), he is now 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 10 starts since rejoining the rotation.

Hes just attacking the zone with confidence right now and he should be successful when hes doing that, manager Mike Quade said. The results speak for themselves. One more good start in Houston and that would be some kind of finish, but hes been fantastic.

Atlanta, San Francisco and Colorado will all be watching the scoreboard these four nights to see what the Cubs do in San Diego. The Padres woke up Monday morning leading the Braves in the wild-card race by a half-game, and trailing the Giants by a half-game in the National League West.

The Padres are a great story, contending with a payroll around 38 million. They have a marketable Mexican-American star in Adrian Gonzalez, who was born in San Diego and moved to Tijuana before emerging as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2000 draft at Eastlake High School in nearby Chula Vista, Calif.

Yet by Monday night, the atmosphere felt like Pittsburgh in May. This is a beautiful downtown stadium by the water with a clear view of the citys skyline and entire sections of empty seats.

Only 22,739 fans showed up to PETCO Park and it finally became somewhat loud in the seventh, when Zambrano walked two batters and ran the count to 3-1.

There he got Tony Gwynn to fly out to center with an 88 mph sinker. He forced pinch-hitter Oscar Salazar to pop out into foul territory to end the inning and held his fist in the air for several seconds.

You could almost hear Zambranos scream several levels up in the stadium. When he returned to the dugout, he was greeted with wave after wave of high fives from his teammates.

By the ninth inning, there was again energy in the stadium. Carlos Marmol needed only 10 pitches to strike out the first two batters before Yorvit Torrealba slid headfirst for an infield single.

Marmol then hit Chase Headley with a slider that appeared to only brush the dirt, and walked Gwynn to load the bases before Nick Hundley flew out to left to end the game. That quieted the crowd and dropped the Padres a game behind the Giants in the division and a half-game back of the Braves in the wild-card chase.

The Cubs will need Zambrano to resemble an ace or at least get significant returns on their 91.5 million investment if they are to get back into that conversation.

Ted Lilly reportedly placed his Chicago house on the market, another sign that hes not likely to return as a free agent. That will only increase the demands on Zambrano near the front of the 2011 rotation.

Late Monday night, Zambrano was feeling good, but wouldnt share how he envisioned this season ending while he waited on the restricted list.

It doesnt matter if its San Diego or St. Louis or Pittsburgh, Zambrano said. I thought about coming back and helping this team and doing my job and forgetting about everything else. Plus, I dont want to talk about when I was suspended or whatever. I want to talk about what I did today and what I want to do (with) my next start.

Patrick Mooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. Follow Patrick on Twitter @CSNMooney for up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”