Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010
By Patrick Mooney
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.