Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The man, the myth: Carlos Zambrano

0-5 stinks. 1-6 can stink too, but not when that 1 is a walk-off grand slam. Alfonso Soriano sent a booming shot to dead center, and the Cubs walked off the field victorious, remaining in first place for at least another day.

I know it seems odd to accept Wandy Rodriguez as a top flight starter, but in terms of this season, I have totally succumbed. The guy has some filthy stuff, and he largely stifled a Cub offense that had been producing lately. Granted he did give up some hits (6), but had a good enough outing that his ERA fell .07 points to 2.65. Maybe I'm making too big a deal about this guy, but I just feel so great that the Cubs were able to open a pretty big series with a win against the opposition's best pitcher.

Despite the 4 walks, Z pitched really well tonight as well. The Carlos Lee home run is forgiveable, it was inevitable and every time Lee hits a solo shot against the Cubs we should all consider ourselves thankful. I mean you are talking about possibly the biggest Cub killer ever (I don't doubt Joey Votto will get there in due time though).

None the less, Z lived up the his billing as the staff "ace," and kept the Cubs in a tight game, matching a good pitcher toe to toe. The past few years he hasn't done this, and it has led to Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster being referred to as the stoppers or workhorses of the staff at different times. For this team to succeed and build on their momentum, Z must live up to the contract and the titles, especially with an ailing Lilly and regressing/ailing Dempster. A night like this breeds confidence (despite the no decision) and with an emotional pitcher like Z, there is no telling where that could lead.

This leads me to a discussion on my personal feelings on Carlos Zambrano. I started out really liking him in his early days, especially 2004-2006, when he was excelling under the radar as Wood and Prior faltered in the spotlight. However, I never fully trusted him to go out and be in the same category as an Oswalt or a Carpenter. I never felt like he was as automatic as those guys have been in their careers, and frankly I was right.

During a bad outing in 2007 when he pointed to his head and "called out" the fans at Wrigley I really took a turn on him. Overrated tended to be the label I stuck to him internally, and that pretty much lasted up until this year. However, I've realized this lately: when it comes to characters and players you'll always remember, Z is exactly that for our generation. Post-Sammy, who will you remember the most? Clearly Woody is up there, but no one has been the face of the Cubs more than Carlos Zambrano since Sammy left town.

Z will go down as a great Cub starting pitcher, and one of the greatest of the last half-century. He has been (mostly) durable, and that alone stands out due to the fact that fragile starting pitching characterized a lot of anguish among Cub fans in this decade. He has been good, borderline great with a 3.48 ERA, 1267 K's, 103 wins, and a no hitter.

Most all though: you can always tell that he cares. The World Series and Cy Young predictions are a bit sophomoric, but they give us as fans outward proof that this guy actually loves being here and competing for the Chicago Cubs. I'm sure a guy who shows minimal emotion such as Jason Marquis cares just as much as Z, but as a fan it is such a good feeling to get a glimpse of a player's true emotion like we do with Z on a regular basis.

I've come along way from confusing with Ruben Quevedo back in the early part of this decade. Like him, love him, hate him, you can't deny that Z has provided us Cub fans with excitement. Whether it be his ever-changing hairstyles this year, bouts with then-Cardinal and future friend Jim Edmonds, or whatever else, Carlos Zambrano has given Cub fans uniqueness. I've finally embraced him, and I might just go out and get his jersey shirt tomorrow.

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