Cubs

Cubs and Zambrano: Same as it ever was?

383909.jpg

Cubs and Zambrano: Same as it ever was?

Monday, Feb. 14, 2011Posted: 10:00 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Carlos Zambrano would often strut around the clubhouse last season wearing his T-shirt from the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. It felt like an old high school quarterback still wearing his varsity jacket years after the Friday nights lights were turned off.

A few teammates watched in amusement on Monday morning as the media gathered around his locker at Fitch Park, three or four deep, waiting to see if Zambrano would grant them an audience.

Zambrano is a great headline. But at this point, even he acknowledges that it doesnt really matter what he tells the cameras. Actions will speak louder.

I want to do more on the field than talk, he said. I dont want to say anything this year. I talk with my numbers.

The Cubs hadnt even begun their first official workout for pitchers and catchers and already it was time to dissect the latest state of Zambrano address, which lasted almost 11 minutes.

Zambrano revealed the most in what he didnt say. There were none of the clichd story lines you read about in spring training. He didnt boast about being in the best shape of his life, or worry about how his family perceives his tantrums, or claim to be a changed man.

Zambrano doesnt want to discuss the past (though he was scheduled to do a sit-down interview with ESPN). Mostly real and sometimes imagined, he can see the negative angles in questions.

Lets talk about this year, he said. I never talk about last year, what happened in the past. I want to talk about the good team that we have. I want to focus on this year and be a better player, a better pitcher. Thats what everybodys looking forward to.

Whether or not 2010 will go down as a turning point in Zambranos career, it will be remembered for the failed bullpen experiment, his confrontation with Derrek Lee, the suspension and anger-management treatment. It nearly overshadowed an 8-0 mark with a 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts.

Mike Quades musical tastes run toward Led Zeppelin, and the manager doesnt want to completely turn down the volume on Zambrano and shut off his passions. Quade referenced a Rush lyric, freeze this moment, in describing the relative calm that came over the 29-year-old near the end of last season.

I would take that finish for six weeks and take the six months right now, Quade said. Book it who wouldnt? But thats an ongoing thing for Z and his development as an older (pitcher) learning what hes going to have to do body-wise, man-wise, all that stuff. Were all making adjustments. Were all getting older, (but) he looked like a young guy those last six weeks and I believe hes motivated.

Zambrano said he still loves playing in Chicago, which does mean something, because he has a no-trade clause in his 91.5 million contract. He said he isnt going anywhere, but added if I go to another team, Chicago will always be in my heart.

It would be far less interesting without him, because he can still make everyone smile with his one-liners.

Do you have anything to prove?

No, no, no. I leave that for the rookies.

What about the competition for the last two spots in the rotation?

Thats not my problem. Ill be there.

Of course, he said, I want to be the Opening Day starter, but its up to Quade, the man who really has to interpret Zambrano and his moods.

Hes more introspective than people realize, Quade said, especially when hes not toeing the rubber. Reflection is a great thing for all of us. Hes the only one that can address that specifically. Im not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. But you couldnt help appreciate the way he finished. That tells you a lot about somebody.

Thats the guy Im going to remember and thats the guy Im looking for.

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

"He belongs here": What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

alzolay-621.jpg
USA Today

"He belongs here": What to expect from top prospect Adbert Alzolay's first major league start

A big part of the Cubs’ MO during the Epstein Era has been the team’s reliance on veteran pitchers. Whether it’s Jon Lester’s cutter, Cole Hamels’ changeup, or Jose Quintana’s sinker, it’s been a while since other teams have had to step into the box against a Cubs starter without much of a scouting report. On the surface, uncertainty from a starting pitcher may sound like a bad thing, but it’s that same apprehension that makes Cubs’ prospect Adbert Alzolay’s first major league start so exciting. 

“There’s energy when you know the guy’s good,” Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “There’s absolutely energy to be derived. But there’s also curiosity. Let’s see if this is real or not. I think he answered that call.” 

The good news for Alzolay and the Cubs is that much of the usual baggage that comes with one’s first major league start is already out of the way. All of the milestones that can get into a young pitchers head -- first strikeout, first hit, first home run allowed, etc -- took place during Alzolay’s four-inning relief appearance back against the Mets on June 20th. 

“I want to believe that that would help,” Maddon added. “It was probably one of the best ways you could break in someone like that. We had just the ability to do it because of the way our pitching was set up, and I think going into tonight’s game, there’s less unknown for him.”

It also helps that Alzolay will have fellow Venezuelan countryman Willson Contreras behind the plate calling his first game. There’s even a sense of novelty from Contreras’ end too. 

“[Catching someone’s debut] is really fun for me,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s a big challenge for me today. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really proud of Alzolay, and I know where he comes from - I know him from Venezuela. It’s going to be fun.”

Tuesday's plan for Alzolay doesn’t involve a specific innings limit. Maddon plans to let the rookie go as long as he can before he “gets extended, or comes out of his delivery,” as the manager put it. On the mound, he’s a flyball pitcher with good control that works quickly. Expect to see a healthy dosage of 4-seamers that sit in the mid-90’s alongside a curveball and changeup that have both seen improvements this year. 

Against the Mets, it was his changeup was the most effective strikeout pitch he had going, with three of his five K’s coming that way. It’s typically not considered his best offspeed offering, but as Theo Epstein put it on Monday afternoon, “[Alzolay] was probably too amped and throwing right through the break,” of his curveball that day.  

It’s obviously good news for the Cubs if he continues to flash three plus pitches, long the barometer of a major league starter versus a bullpen guy. Even if he doesn’t quite have the feel for all three yet, it’s his beyond-the-years demeanor that has those within the organization raving. 

“The confidence he showed during his first time on the mound, as a young pitcher, that’s a lot,” Contreras said. “That’s who he can be, and the command that he has of his pitches is good, especially when he’s able to go to his third pitch.” 

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

Willson Contreras, Jon Lester carry Cubs to eventful win in the first game of the series with Atlanta

The Cubs and Braves got through roughly one inning of Stranger Things Night at Wrigley Field before Willson Contreras made the evening his own. 

The catcher went 2-4 with three RBI, and provided the most notable moment from the game: a 2nd inning solo homer that caused both benches to clear. Contreras had taken issue with a few of the called strikes earlier in the at-bat, and said something to home plate umpire John Tumpane about it. Contreras continued to make his feelings known as he left the box, drawing the ire of Braves catcher Tyler Flowers.

“To be honest, those pitches weren’t even close to the strike zone,” he said. “[Flowers] got mad because I was talking to the umpire about that, and he jumped into the conversation. 

Contreras then proceeded to shout in the direction of Atlanta’s dugout while rounding first base, and the two catchers exchanged more words as he crossed home plate. The benches quickly emptied, and after a few moments of posturing, returned to their dugouts. 

“It was a lot of emotions together,” he said after the game. “I was having a conversation with the umpire, and it ended up with [Flowers], so that’s all I can say. I just basically told him to do his job and I’ll do mine. I don’t know why he got pissed off because that’s all I said - you do your job and i’ll do mine.”

“I was kind of amused by the whole thing,” Joe Maddon added. “I don’t really know Mr. Flowers - we had a nice conversation, walked away, and it was over. It really wasn’t worth more than what happened.

The confrontation was just one of a few testy moments between these two teams. In the top of the 2nd inning, Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson was caught on cameras shushing the Cubs dugout: 

Two innings later, it was Javy Baez who returned serve by blowing the Braves a kiss after stealing second on Flowers: 

“It’s fun because they’re good,” Maddon said. “And we’re good - that’s the fun part. Monday night, at 7:05, to have that kind of attitude and atmosphere is outstanding. That’s what baseball needs.” 

On the mound, Jon Lester bounced back from a run of three straight underwhelming performances. June hasn’t been kind to Lester, as the lefty had allowed 14 runs over the last 23 IPs prior to Monday’s start, good for a 5.93 FIP. He threw 94 pitches against the Braves, lasting six innings while allowing two runs -- both unearned, though -- and striking out seven. He only threw 94 pitches, but his control (0 BB) was excellent. Lester spotted his strikeout pitch well all night, getting four of his six right-handed K’s on the low outside corner:

“I just tried to stay down there, and had the backdoor cutter to those guys,” Lester said. “We were able to kind of exploit that, and then when we felt that guys were reaching out there a little bit, I ran the cutter in on some guys too. I was just able to command both sides of the plate tonight, which is huge against an offense like that.” 

“Great job by Jon,” Maddon added, “Jon had great stuff. Coming off of [throwing 114 pitches], he’s been throwing a lot of pitches on regular rest, so I wanted to limit that tonight. He was lobbying to go back out, but I didn’t feel good about it based on the longevity of the season and we had a rested Kintzler.

“But Jon was really good, and really good against a tough lineup.”