The Final Straw
Who can say what happens in the mind of Carlos Zambrano. He is enigmatic and mercurial, but that only scratches the surface. He’s been paid as a No. 1 starter, yet possesses the demeanor of a petulant 1st grader.
Carlos is no stranger to controversy or conflict. But something felt a bit different on this Friday night in Atlanta. This time there was no one to blame but Carlos. In prior years his catcher, his first baseman, his manager, countless umpires, and even a Gatorade cooler have found themselves in his path. But in Atlanta, Carlos was alone and stranded on the mound – after perhaps the most disappointing performance of his career, he resorted to throwing aggressively at Chipper Jones in what appeared to be an effort to get himself ejected.
Carlos made his debut for the Cubs in 2001 as a baby-faced 20 year old (or so they say). He was largely unimpressive in very limited action mostly from the bullpen. He made huge strides the following year, especially as a starter. From 2002 through the end of last year, he posted annual ERAs under 4.00 – and that was just his pitching.
Managers don’t regularly count on their pitcher to produce much at the plate, but Zambrano always over-delivered in this regard. Though he started the 2003 season with one hit in two years, he racked up 18 in 2002 and has posted a batting average of .217 or higher in 8 of the last 9 seasons. He’s also provided some pop with 23 career home runs. He’s easily one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball history – possibly the best in the modern era.
During the playoff run of 2003, Carlos was in some ways the “other” starter. In a playoff rotation that featured Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Matt Clement, it was Zambrano who would draw the role of “4th starter.” (Yes, I realize that Zambrano was the Game 2 NLDS starter, and Game 1 NLCS starter – that had more to do with scheduling, availability, road vs. home, and of course the crazy Dusty factor). Zambrano didn’t win any of his three starts in that postseason, even though twice he was staked to first-inning leads. Even at 22, Carlos’ ability to come up small in big games was becoming evident.
After Matt Clement was let go, Mark Prior turned into the forerunner of Greg Oden, and Kerry Wood decided he wanted an arm surgery named after him too, Carlos was the “ace” left standing. That also meant that he became the Cubs Opening Day starter. He opened the season on the mound from 2006-2010. The Cubs were 3-3 in those games, Zambrano was 1-2 – and lucky to be that.
In his first turn as No. 1 the Cubs would provide him with an enviable cushion. It was 7-0 after an inning and a half, but with the score at 9-2 and the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, Carlos walked the pitcher with the bases loaded. Dusty had seen enough and yanked Carlos even though he was one-out from qualifying for the win.
He suffered a similar fate in 2006 when the Cubs jumped out to a 5-0 lead but he’d given it all back before he got the final out of the fifth. Dusty yanked him after 4.2 innings again. (In both 2005 & 2006, the Cubs would score 16 runs in big wins – Zambrano had two no-decisions)
The Cubs lost three of the next four Opening Day games; Zambrano pitched well in 2008 (the Fukudome game) and 2009 (when he captured his only win against the Astros). His final Opening Day start was last year in Atlanta, when Jason Heyward and the Braves tagged him for 8 runs – Carlos only got 4 outs.
In all, Carlos pitched 28.1 innings on Opening Day and surrendered 17 ERs…ouch!
Bravado & Aggression
To the casual baseball fan, Carlos was known for his raw and unhindered aggression – often times directed at his teammates – and for his bold claims about what he or the Cubs would be accomplishing in the coming season.
He famously tussled with Michael Barrett and Derrek Lee in the dugout on separate occasions after he felt that each had cost him runs in the previous half-inning. He also got medieval on a Gatorade container; perhaps it had contributed to his demise on the mound as well. Each “incident” was followed by an apology, the sincerity of which was always questioned, and then Carlos would proceed in lightheartedly downplaying the whole event as much as possible.
When the Cubs sent him to rehab after the Lee incident (to get his anger under control) there was no way to put a positive spin on it. Carlos had to boldly proclaim that we’d be seeing a different attitude on the mound and in the clubhouse. No one believed it would last.
Bold proclamations weren’t new to Carlos; he had become legendary for predicting a World Series appearance for the Cubs or a Cy Young Award for himself. Spring training seemed to be the time that reporters would bait Carlos into saying some that would come back to bite him in the fall.
Friday’s game only further proves that he’s never mastered his aggression or tamed his tongue.
The Good Times
Amidst the constant controversy and turmoil that surrounded much of Carlos’ career, there were a lot of good times.
In 2008, the Cubs found themselves in Milwaukee playing 2 games against the Astros. Hurricane Ike and Bud Selig had conspired to benefit the Brewers. In the end, it was Carlos who would benefit the most. He turned in the signature game of his career, a no-hitter – registering 10 strikeouts and only 1 walk. It was the Cubs first no-hitter since Milt Pappas threw one in 1972.
Until 2008 Carlos had been a workhorse, registering more than 200 IP in the previous 5 seasons as a full-time starter. From 2008 onward, his career was marred by injuries and periods of ineffectiveness or outright rebellion that even relegated him to the bullpen. But he always managed to get that ERA back below 4.00 and six times he won at least 13 games.
The at-bats, especially when they led to home runs, were a joy to watch. Carlos would swing away in every situation, sometimes even breaking his bat as he walked back after a strikeout. But when he got a hold of one you knew it was gone.
About Those Home Runs
You’d think that a pitcher hitting a home run would bolster his confidence and narrow his focus on the mound – he’d done more than his job at the plate already, it was now just time to pitch. With Carlos, it was often the opposite.
More than once Carlos would belt a long blast and then lose total focus on the mound. Whether it was an adrenaline rush or a mental lapse that stunted him, that next half-inning was always nervous. Would Carlos be sharp? Or would he start walking successive hitters providing the opponent with a big inning that undermined his recent offensive prowess?
Carlos first talked about retirement openly and seriously in 2009. He indicated that he’d finish his current contract – that would be through the end of 2012 (or 2013, depending on the option). It’s certainly not hard to imagine that Carlos is beyond the 30 years old that he’s reported at – but retirement in 2012 seemed premature. And with Carlos, none of us believed he woke up with the same perspective two days in a row; surely it was a fleeting fancy.
He’s No John Kruk
Kruk famously walked off the field after a routine single; Carlos is leaving after an anything-but-routine 4.1 IP, 5 HR allowed, and an ejection to top it off debacle of a start. It’s the baseball equivalent of selling low; for his image and public persona nothing could be worse than Carlos quitting tonight. That alone gives me the belief that perhaps he will don the #38 for the Cubs again.
Zambrano has always relished proving his “haters” to be wrong, and in walking away he validates every opinion ever held against him. He may not be able to completely repair his reputation, but he doesn’t need to leave a narrative that practically writes itself as an indictment of his career.
A Team Perspective
It’s probably a debate better suited for a separate column, but would the Cubs even take him back at this point? Without explicit knowledge of his contract, it seems that the Cubs might have some recourse to void his deal – at least in part – if he, as it’s claimed, has cleaned out his locker and left the team entirely. Maybe after a day or two we’ll know more, but at this point I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Cubs front office that genuinely wants Zambrano back…I doubt the clubhouse is much different.