By Matt Spiegel–
Springtime brings the annual battle between a baseball fan’s heart, and his head. Hope tries, often successfully, to defeat reason as possibilities are envisioned.
Even as the rest of the division battles injuries, a Cub fan knows better than to let that happen. Reason has beaten the crap out of hope for the last couple years, with hope left crying in a bloody heap. Johnny Cueto, Chris Carpenter, Zach Greinke, Shawn Marcum and others line up behind the big one, the Cardinal’s loss of Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery. But still, you’d have to be truly willfully delusional to see this team as anything better than third.
But I can offer you, Cub fan, a rare springtime fusion. Reason had been coerced by hope, and both have bonded together firmly, when it comes to Carlos Zambrano, pitcher.
Notice I specify pitcher, not player or person. This isn’t about his head, or his mindset. Last spring’s story was his weight loss, re-dedication, and attempt at maturity. He was ready to go mentally in a brand new way. How did that go?
This time, the pitching is the thing to feel good about. Everyone who has seen him throw this spring says Carlos Zambrano, on the mound, looks as good as he did at the tail end of last year. He’s been doing exactly what he did in those wonderful final 11 starts last season; mixing speeds, not trying to overthrow, hitting location, and trusting his stuff. He was downright crafty in August and September, showing the kind of mound smarts that can stretch a healthy pitcher’s career into his late 30’s with ease.
The latest voice to make the hope-ometer pin into the red is pitching coach Mark Riggins, talking about “a connection” the coaching staff and Zambrano have made in regards to his arm slot. In a performance sense, this issue has always been at the forefront of any Big Z downswing. When his arm slot dips lower than it should, he gets wild. When he’s wild, he tries to throw it through the mitt and blow guys away. When the slot gets too low, his stuff flattens out, and he gets hittable. So even if these comments are partially just Arizona blather, the staff attention to it is most welcome.
When Zambrano is bad, his weak mentality can crumble. The theory here is that if he’s good…that mentality won’t be tested enough to cause major problems. Success calms the savage Z.
The other factor to consider here is that even with the multiple blow-ups and blatant displays of either idiocy or issues (depending on your psychological modernity), he has been almost uniformly good. The numbers are right there for you. The 6 year run from 2003 to 2008 may all have been seasons you and I thought were under-achievements based on his ability, but those under-achievements put him in the top 10 starting pitchers in the National league. So, even if the mental side damages his results, he’ll probably still be better than most.
I’m sold. Sold on Zambrano, pitcher, far more so and somewhat irrelevantly from Zambrano, person. We’ll see if it’s pure folly.
16-8, 3.45 ERA, 192 IP, 185 K’s.