Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day

Dempster - not Zambrano - to start Opening Day
February 21, 2011, 5:32 pm
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Monday, Feb. 21, 2011
Posted 11:29 a.m. Updated 5:25 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Ryan Dempster represents what the Cubs would like to project.

Hes the player that young pitchers model themselves after. Hes an established figure in the community through his charity work. He also had enough clubhouse juice to feel comfortable publicly lobbying for Mike Quade to get the managers job last year.

Quade joked that he would milk this for as long as possible, but pitching coach Mark Riggins needed to know in order to schedule out the next five-plus weeks. So on Monday morning the manager called Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Garza into his office at Fitch Park.

Quade earned the respect of his players through direct communication and reasoned explanations. He informed them that Dempster would start Opening Day at Wrigley Field on April 1, followed by Zambrano and Garza against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That was really cool, Dempster said. It would be so easy to talk to us each as individuals. But isnt that what were trying to get away from? I think were trying to be a team and unite as much as possible. I know Z was really happy for me. He told me so himself. That probably meant just as much as Quade telling me.

Theres no doubt Zambrano took pride in making six consecutive Opening Day starts, a franchise record. The last time someone else got the assignment was Kerry Wood in 2004. The numbers 1-2 with a 6.99 ERA seem to suggest what Zambrano has admitted: He got too jacked up for those games.

Quade made the decision in part to line up Zambrano for the seasons third series in Milwaukee, where for his career hes 9-5 with a 3.19 ERA at Miller Park. That includes the 2008 no-hitter he threw there in a game relocated because of Hurricane Ike.

(Zambrano) said that I deserved it, Dempster said. It takes somebody big to say that too, especially when you started that many Opening Days in a row. I know hes excited for his start.

Garza won an ALCS MVP award with Tampa Bay and has pitched at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. But Quade feels this will give him a chance to absorb Wrigley Field and a new league for a few days.

Zambrano finished his workouts and left the complex to take his family to the airport before the media had a chance to get his reaction. The Cubs are saying its all good. Its also a window into where Quade feels his relationship is at with Zambrano.

Its a pretty good sign of maturity, and its a sign of a guy that is a good teammate, Quade said. It goes to the three of them and their character and it goes to my feel on Z and how hed handle it. (This) let me emphasize that they are a group."

Dempster said he was surprised by the news, but it wasnt hard to see this coming. This was earned. The reliable right-hander made Opening Day starts in 2001 and 2002 for the Florida Marlins. He went 15-12 with a 3.85 ERA last year and led the team in quality starts (23). He has accounted for 30-plus starts and at least 200 innings in each of the past three seasons.

Last year the Cubs absorbed their worst loss on Opening Day since 1884, a 16-5 defeat in Atlanta that set the tone for all the wrong reasons. They need a good start. Theres no other pitcher in the room that the Cubs would rather follow.

I dont know that Demps status in the clubhouse could really get any better to be honest with you, Quade said. Thats how much respect they have for him and, I think, all three (pitchers). Performance has a lot to do with that. And I hope theyll feed off each other and theyve got each others back when theres a poor performance: Someone picks the next guy up.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.