Carlos Zambrano is growing up. So is the team that surrounds him, although at times both still have their bad days.
On Saturday in Los Angeles, Zambrano viciously attacked a pair of watercoolers for the crime of being within his line of vision. It was a classic battle of man versus inanimate object. It was also, in a way, a sign of progress. A little more than a year ago, the Chicago Cubs' emotional ace had blown off a similar amount of steam by punching his catcher.
When Zambrano fought with Michael Barrett in the Wrigley Field dugout, it marked the low point in the growing pains that followed Lou Piniella to Chicago. Before that week was out, Barrett had been traded to San Diego, Piniella had kicked dirt all over umpire Mark Wegner and the Cubs had turned a corner in giving themselves a realistic chance to get to the World Series.
"We started switching over right about now last year,'' Piniella said. "Making some changes.''
On June 2, 2007, the Cubs were 22-31 and Piniella was wondering what he had gotten himself into. They've gone 103-70 since then, recovering from an 8½-game deficit to win a National League Central title and starting this season 40-24, the best mark in the majors.
For a team that hasn't won a World Series in 100 years, the same length of time since it last played postseason baseball in back-to-back seasons, the Cubs have become sold on their chance to overcome the franchise's sad history.
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez was asked by the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan if the Cubs are the team to beat.
"Yeah, we are right now,'' Ramirez said. "But last year at this time, Milwaukee was the same way and they didn't make the playoffs. So you can't take anything for granted.''
Ramirez was with the Cubs when Florida recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win the National League Championship Series in 2003. Ditto closer Kerry Wood, who back then was in the role of ace.
They've developed a thorough appreciation of their team's history of non carpe diem. Most of their teammates experienced it for the first time when Arizona swept the Cubs in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Yes, the Cubs are on pace to win 101 games, and have played .595 baseball for more than a year. They've had a better winning percentage than this only once since winning the 1945 pennant. That was by the magical '84 team, which like the one in '03 lost three chances to clinch a pennant in the NLCS. But the only thing you celebrate in June is Father's Day.
That's why Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has his scouts searching for an impact player he can add in a midseason trade.
Piniella has talked about wanting another left-handed bat to balance his collection of right-handed run producers: Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Ramirez, rookie catcher Geovany Soto and Mark DeRosa. But low-risk addition Jim Edmonds is showing a pulse (10-for-25, one homer, seven RBIs in his past eight games) and Kosuke Fukudome is starting to drive the ball.
Don't be surprised if the Cubs stick with the hitters they have, opting instead to load up a truck with top-tier prospects to go get the best starting pitcher on the market. The thought of C.C. Sabathia following Zambrano in a postseason rotation is almost too much for a fan to process, assuming that Gary Hughes, Ken Kravec and the Cubs' highly respected stable of scouts agree that his 4.81 ERA is a red herring.
"We're thinner than people think we are,'' Piniella said last week, speaking of his starting rotation.
Read the entire ESPN article:
http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/s ... id=3433842