in the last twenty-four hours, coming on the heels of a 3-5 start and riding a three-game losing streak, cub fans have been dealt bad news regarding mark prior, kerry wood and aramis ramirez. and that, somehow, was deemed insufficient by the gods of baseball as punishment for the hubris of the spring -- and they have settled their score with relish.
such a loss is a rare breed of anxiety, frustration and awe -- and it could not help but spark comparison to an achingly-familiar but much more critical catastrophe of still-recent vintage.
with the cubs cruising behind their ace in spite of ramirez's absence, carlos zambrano -- and this cannot really be sufficiently expressed -- fell apart. the topic of zambrano's immaturity and sloppiness has been one here visited before -- including exactly one year ago, as it happens. and it was just today that mike pindelski of beyond the boxscore offered this trenchant and remarkably timely analysis:
I don't have any statistical evidence to back this argument up, but Cubs fans as well as myself know Zambrano has a tendency to pitch with "too much" emotion often leading to trouble. I'm sure the phrase "settle down" has often been muttered to Zambrano by either former Cubs' manager Dusty Baker, catcher Michael Barrett and pitching coach Larry Rothschild and it's a phrase Zambrano needs to start taking to heart. When things don't go in Big Z's way, he starts throwing rather than pitching; trying to blow the ball past every hitter he faces often leading to poor control. As ridiculous as it may sound, Zambrano's emotions might be something holding him back.
they certainly held him back today, when yet another misplay by alfonso soriano contributed to one of the most spectacular mound meltdowns of zambrano's career. juan castro was aboard with no one out when soriano, having taken too late a break from centerfield on a chris moeller popup, collided with second baseman ronny cedeno as the ball fell in. zambrano then walked brandon phillips to load the bases with no one out, and the destruction ensued. will ohman was called in to try to stem the tide, but contributed only two consecutive walks each of which forced in a run.
michael wuertz put a very brave face on the situation by escaping with three strikeouts, but the collapse took every ounce of air out the the club. when soriano found his way on the following inning, he was immediately picked off by todd coffey -- and it took no tea leaf reading to see that the game was decided, as a long denouement proved.
zambrano is now 26 years old, and decidedly not 18. this writer has before commented on the "extended adolescence" that he has been afforded and which he has certainly made the most of -- in truth (and demonstrated glaringly today) zambrano remains only a very good pitcher compromised by a lack of mental stamina under pressure and adversity. he clearly loves the big stage; the question now is, can he mature enough to handle it? it seems here that this point is far from decided, and will be exceedingly important in this season of pressure to win being applied from without and within the cub organization. and all this coming against the backdrop of a multimillion-dollar contract negotiation. better pitchers have fallen apart under similar circumstances.
zambrano's sad start -- with his era having ballooned out to 7.88, managing just 16 innings in three starts with 17 hits and 11 walks allowed against 10 strikeouts -- has paralleled the cubs' fortunes in the early going. while it seems certain that events must improve for both the club and its ace, these struggles are sufficient reminder that this year is going to be the long, tense slog of a frustratingly flawed club in an equally flawed division.
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