Starting over, Zambrano wins for his nephew

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Starting over, Zambrano wins for his nephew

Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010
10:55 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

WASHINGTON For all their differences, Carlos Zambrano and Lou Piniella have this in commonboth are emotional men who value the importance of family.

Zambrano spoke with his brother on Tuesday and left the Cubs that night to travel back home to Venezuela to visit his 11-year-old nephew, who was hospitalized and placed in intensive care with whats believed to be a bacterial infection.

He told me to dedicate that game to his son, Zambrano said. In the first inning I was thinking about him. And I was throwing all the pitches saying: This is for my nephew.

With all that weighing on his mind, Zambrano went out and dominated the Washington Nationals in a 5-4 victory. And in a way the enigmatic pitcher is starting over, playing for a new manager and with a group of new teammates.

Maybe you are struggling with how to pronounce Mike Quades last name, or you cant tell one rookie reliever apart from another.

But there were still two familiar sights on Tuesday night at Nationals Park, Zambrano raising his head and pointing to the sky, and Alfonso Soriano lingering near home plate, admiring his three-run homer as it soared into the left-field seats.

Combined Zambrano and Soriano will make almost 36 million this season, enough to bankroll an entire 25-man roster for a small-market team. They will not fade easily into the background, and not just because they have no-trade clauses and approximately 108 million remaining on their contracts.

Soriano bounces around the clubhouse with a constant smile. Zambrano declined to comment after Piniella announced that Sunday would be his final game in uniform. They are two of the most recognizable faces left in this franchise.

For all the talk about developing young players for 2011, Quade has stressed that he needs the veterans to carry the Cubs (53-74) through to the end of this season. Zambrano is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his four starts since returning to the rotation.

Well take that fresh start and just run with it for the next six weeks, Quade said.

After limiting the Nationals (53-73) to one run across 7 13 innings, Zambrano has the same outlook.

Q (is more) hyper than Lou, Zambrano said. He has more energy, but we need to do our job anyway, either being with Lou or Q or (Alan) Trammell. (We) need to play for our team.

Soriano can get hot and carry a team, and he now has hit at least 20 homers in nine consecutive seasons. Even if hes a flawed player, hes in elite company. Only four other players are on similar runs: Alex Rodriguez (15 seasons); Albert Pujols (10); Adam Dunn (nine); and David Ortiz (nine).

Zambrano (5-6, 4.64) hasnt produced like an elite pitcher, but feels like he is improving each time out, building from one start to the next. Last week against the San Diego Padres he walked six batters and struck out one. This time he finished with eight strikeouts and only one walk.

If Zambrano remains a Cub, whoever the manager is next season will want to cultivate a relationship with him. Piniella reached breaking points with Zambrano, and it helped lead to his suspension and time on the restricted list.

Lou was very special to me. He was honest, Zambrano said. Any time he had to say something to me, he said it. He wasnt afraid.

When he calls somebody into the office, it doesnt matterthat guy could be making 18 million. (He) knows how to speak. He didnt say much, but when he spoke, he knew what to say. He knew how to come to you and say the proper words.

In the same interview, Zambrano can be dismissive and engaging with the media. He began to answer two separate questions Tuesday night with: What do you think? Yes, he thinks hes getting better, and that he would have been in a groove if he remained in the rotation the entire season.

Zambrano described his bullpen experiment this way: We got too desperate too soon. He then reflected on his nephew, and vowed to make his next start, likely Monday at Wrigley Field.

Its pretty sad, Zambrano said. He is in bad condition (and) I will be with my family for a few days and come back to work.

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

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”