Mike Nadel's column from Chicago Cubs' 6-2 victory over Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday afternoon.
Quite a performance by Carlos Zambrano. And I’m not talking about the way he pitched the Chicago Cubs to a much-needed victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Misty-eyed and soft-spoken, the big right-hander professed his love for battered battery-mate Michael Barrett. He also vowed that Wednesday was the start of a new, improved Zambrano.
“I’m still friends with Michael Barrett,’’ he said. “He still calls me brother and I still call him brother. We forgive each other. He will catch me Monday against the Houston Astros and I don’t have a problem with that.
“I still love him and I felt embarrassed the next day . . . because I punched one of my teammates. It was a bad feeling. The next day, he came to me and apologized. And I apologized to him. And we both cried.’’
Zambrano had to go Barrett one better, didn’t he? Several days ago, Michael had said he loved Carlos. Now here was Carlos saying they melted into each other’s arms and formed one big, beefy puddle of brotherly love.
It makes for quite an image.
“It’s like when you fight with your little brother but the next day you get along with him,’’ Zambrano said. “We have to move on. We have a job to do.’’
Zambrano certainly did his job Wednesday, allowing five hits and striking out nine in 6 2/3 innings as the Cubs won 6-2 to pull within 6½ games of the first-place Brewers. (He pitched to backup catcher Koyie Hill, who supposedly was starting in Barrett’s place only because it was a day game after a night game.)
“Today was kind of the take-off for Carlos Zambrano,’’ Zambrano said. “Yesterday, I said in my mind: ‘Tomorrow is the season opener for you. Forget about anything else. Just start from tomorrow.’ From now on, I will try to think like that.
“I have a book and I’ll write that I have 6 2/3 innings, two runs, one win, 1-and-oh. You put that in your mind and you’re going to have a great second half of the season.’’
He made it sound so easy and he seemed so sincere that I really wanted to believe him.
Of course, Cubs fans wanted to believe Zambrano in spring training when he guaranteed he’d win the Cy Young Award and his team would take the National League Central title.
Maybe both things still can happen. The Brewers certainly have enough shortcomings to be caught by somebody; on paper, anyway, the Cubs have the most talent in the division. And Zambrano obviously has the physical stuff to dominate for long stretches.
Sure, he went into Wednesday’s game with a 5-5 record and 5.62 earned-run average. That was the old, pre-personal-pep-talk Carlos Zambrano, remember?
Sorry if I sound a little skeptical. I have covered the Cubs for too long to jump aboard the bandwagon of a dysfunctional team that is seven games under .500 and a pitcher who publicly pummels his catcher.
My favorite Zambrano comment came after he was asked if he had requested Henry Blanco as his personal receiver: “No, I never would do that to my teammate. I trust Michael.’’
No, he’d never do that. He’d much rather show up teammates by berating them for making errors. He’d much rather display his trust of Michael by slapping Barrett upside the head.
A fiery competitor, Zambrano seems to need to be on the edge to pitch effectively. Dealing with the attention of the previous few days certainly stoked his competitive fires and made him better Wednesday.
Rankled by rumors that his arm was sore and recalling his promise to reporters that he'd throw 98 mph in his next start, he admitted to routinely sneaking peeks at the Miller Park pitch-speed board.
“Yeah, because I knew you were paying attention,’’ Zambrano told the media. “Like I told you guys, I’m not hurt. I couldn’t throw 98 today, but I threw 96. And that’s good enough, don’t you think?’’
Yes, I do. He blew away Tony Gwynn Jr. with 96 mph heat and made J.J. Hardy flail miserably at 79 mph junk. He was nasty and in control and absolutely masterful.
The Cubs need more of the same, a lot more, if they are to contend.
In his last three starts, Ted Lilly demonstrated why his career is one of mediocrity. Jason Marquis and Rich Hill also are finding their levels instead of overachieving.
The Cubs need their ace, their $12.4 million stud. Zambrano wants a nine-figure contract? He needs to stop making guarantees and start earning his keep.
If it means he has to keep talking himself into greatness and sharing tender moments with teammates, well, so be it.
Mike Nadel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.