Carlos Zambrano to be Cubs Closer?

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Carlos Zambrano be a closer?

On Sunday, it looked that way. The Cubs had what appeared to be a comfortable 10-2 lead against the D-backs when lefty John Grabow came in to finish the game. But Grabow gave up three quick runs, including Stephen Drew's two-run triple. That's when Zambrano got up in the 'pen and was greeted by cheers from the crowd of 38,144.

Justin Upton hit an RBI single to make it 10-5, and one out later, he moved up on defensive indifference.

But Grabow was able to strike out Chris Young and preserve the win for the Cubs.

Closer Carlos Marmol pitched on Friday and Saturday, and the second outing required him to throw 35 pitches. Marmol also turned his right ankle slightly when he stepped in a hole on the mound.

By not using Marmol on Sunday, manager Lou Piniella was able to give the right-hander two days off. And, if need be, Zambrano may be called on to close.

"[Marmol] threw 30-some pitches [Saturday], 20-some the day before," Piniella said after Sunday's game. "We had Carlos -- Zambrano, I mean -- ready to come in the ballgame if one other hitter had gotten on. That's a luxury that the move we made gives us."

The "move" was the decision to switch Zambrano from the rotation to the 'pen. In four starts, Zambrano was 1-2 with a 7.45 ERA, including a loss on Opening Day. In three relief appearances, he has given up one run on five hits over four innings for a 2.25 ERA, and he has not allowed a run in his past two outings.

Piniella has hesitated to use Zambrano in back-to-back games until he has four or five relief appearances under his belt. He last pitched on Friday.

-- Carrie Muskat

No stopping Soriano's power stroke

CHICAGO -- Alfonso Soriano gave Rudy Jaramillo a huge hug in the dugout. It was well deserved.

Soriano hit his third homer in as many games in the first inning of Sunday's 10-5 Cubs win over the D-backs and followed that with another two-run blast in the fifth for his 24th career multihomer game. Soriano also doubled in the third inning.

Soriano is the first Cubs player to homer in three consecutive games since he did so on May 12-14, 2008.

"He's been working hard," said Marlon Byrd, who also homered on Sunday. "Last year, he wasn't 100 percent. Now, you're seeing the real Soriano. Everybody knows he can play. That's why he got the big deal -- that's why he's the starting left fielder. It's going to be interesting to see what his numbers are on Oct. 2, because I think this will be a big year for him."

Soriano, who's over his leg problems from a year ago, seems to have found his groove now that he's reunited with Jaramillo, who was his hitting coach with the Rangers in 2004 and '05.

"Rudy had him in Texas before, and he had success with him in Texas," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of Soriano. "When a player has a confidence in a particular coach, whether it's a hitting coach or infield coach, they tend to work together pretty well.

"With Soriano, it's been a good marriage between the two," Piniella said. "At the same time, my job is to keep him rested. I know he doesn't like it when he's not in the lineup, but we'll continue to do that to keep him as fresh as we can."

What Jaramillo is trying to get Soriano to do is shift his weight so 60 percent is on his right leg, which is his power leg, and 40 percent on his left. He is more compact, has closed his stance a bit and, best of all, has cut down on the strikeouts.

"I can see the difference," Soriano said. "I put my left foot in the middle of home plate and the pitcher. That gives me a half-second, one second, to decide what I want to do with the ball. The ball is halfway when I put my left foot down. When I do that, with my quick hands, I can do whatever I want with the ball."

What Soriano has done in the past three games is drive in 10 runs, a feat he has accomplished only one other time in his career -- May 4-7, 2005, while with Texas. Yep, that's when Jaramillo was his hitting coach.

"You can see that he's seeing the ball much better," Piniella said. "He's not chasing -- he's zoned in. He had four wonderful at-bats today."

Which could make a big difference for the Cubs.

"He's hot as can be," Arizona manager A.J. Hinch said. "We pitched him a little tentatively earlier in the series. The fastball in that he hit out off [Daniel] Stange [in the fifth] pretty much capped everything.

"He hit everything," Hinch said of the left fielder. "He hit fastballs away, he hit a breaking ball out, a first-pitch breaking ball, a pitch in from Stange. He's red hot."

He still has work to do. Getting the timing right is not easy. Soriano has to keep his hands back, his body back to wait for pitches and get the timing of his left foot right.

"Sometimes, I can do one or two together, and I miss one," Soriano said. "Rudy understands. He puts all my talent together."

Hinch noticed a difference in each game.

"You can tell the confidence was growing as the series went on," Hinch said. "It seemed like every time they had multiple runners on, he was coming to the plate and he delivered. He was definitely the key to the series. He was the headliner from this series."

-- Carrie Muskat

Crowded outfield a pleasant problem

CHICAGO -- Manager Lou Piniella has said he would like to rotate the Cubs' five outfielders throughout the season. However, the task has proven more difficult than anticipated.

"I thought that it would be easier to get five outfielders playing," Piniella said. "We're going to do that. We're going to rest our outfielders. But it's been hard for me to get [Xavier] Nady in the lineup."

Piniella's starting outfielders aren't making it easy on him. The trio -- Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd -- have combined to go 21-for-56 (.375) with five homers and 14 RBIs entering Sunday's series finale with the D-backs.

"I've got Fukudome that's swinging it, I've got Soriano that's swinging it and I've got Byrd that's swinging it," Piniella said.

Fukudome's hitting coach, Kyosuke Sasaki, spent the past week in Chicago to refine the right fielder's swing. Sasaki tried to lower Fukudome's body in his stance and be more compact. It worked. Fukudome went 10-for-23 with four home runs and nine RBIs in his last eight games entering Sunday.

"He's staying through the ball well," Piniella said. "He's driving the ball to the pull field and also he's hitting some balls out here to left field, which we've talked about being important for him because he stays on the ball much better. He's done a really nice job."

We'll see how Fukudome does without Sasaki, however, as the hitting coach returned to Japan before Sunday's game.

-- Matt Forman

Ramirez takes seat on bench

CHICAGO -- With Aramis Ramirez in the midst of a 5-for-25 homestand and with only one of those hits going for extra bases, manager Lou Piniella opted to give the third baseman a day off Sunday.

Chad Tracy started and batted fifth in place of Ramirez in the Cubs' last home game before a six-game road trip starts Tuesday, beginning with three games against the Pirates.

"This gives Ramirez today and Monday [off]," Piniella said. "It's a good day to give a player a day off."

The break will give Ramirez two days to clear his mind. He is hitting .155 with three home runs and 14 RBIs, and hasn't homered since April 15.

"It's just a matter of getting my mechanics right and sticking with it," Ramirez said.

This isn't the first time Ramirez has been out of whack at the plate. His problems now are magnified because it's the beginning of the season.

"I don't live in the past," Ramirez said. "I just look forward and try to get the job done. I've struggled before. I know I can hit. I just have to keep working."

The two-day break isn't something new. Piniella didn't start Ramirez on April 22-23, so he could work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Since those off-days, Ramirez has gone 6-for-29 with five RBIs and two strikeouts.

Still, Piniella has confidence that his 12-year pro will work through his early-season struggles. In fact, Ramirez, had strung together a six-game hitting streak before Saturday's 0-for-4 performance.

"He's a veteran guy," Piniella said. "I could see it becoming mental for a younger player, but the older veterans got to keep plugging along and working. If they were a young player I would definitely say that mental would come into the equation. But the veteran player, he's been through the wars before. I'm sure Ramirez has had spurts or times when he's struggled. The only surprising thing is the amount of the strikeouts."

Ramirez struck out 24 times in as many April games. By comparison, Ramirez struck out 17 times in 26 April games in 2008. He missed eight games last April, but he whiffed seven times in 13 games.

Ramirez hasn't been a notoriously slow starter during his career, though his .257 April batting average is the lowest for any month. In addition, his 146 strikeouts are second most behind only July.

Asked what he did as a player to break out of slumps, Piniella quipped, "I put more money in the basket on Sunday."

-- Matt Forman

Caridad headed for Iowa

CHICAGO -- Rookie reliever Esmailin Caridad passed all the tests on Saturday in his one inning at the Cubs' facility in Mesa, Ariz., and the next step will be for him to pitch at Triple-A Iowa.

Caridad is expected to join the Minor League team on Tuesday. The right-hander has been on the disabled list since April 12 with a strained forearm.

"I don't think the performance is nearly as important as how he feels health-wise," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Sunday.

Caridad could rejoin the Cubs by the end of the week if he passes all the tests with the Triple-A team.

"What we're looking for is a couple appearances in Iowa and we'll see how he's doing," Piniella said. "If he's throwing the ball well, we'll have him here within the week. If not, we'll stay the way we are."

-- Carrie Muskat

Cubs support Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Several of the Cubs players attended Saturday night's Blackhawks playoff game against the Canucks, who defeated Chicago, 5-1.

"I'm rooting for good hockey," said pitcher Ryan Dempster, whose allegiances are torn since he's Canadian and also living and working in Chicago.

Reliever James Russell, who wore his Blackhawks jersey personalized with "The Animal" on the back, was among the many disappointed fans as the Canucks opened a quick 5-0 lead.

"That's a big lead in baseball -- imagine that in hockey, it's crazy," Russell said. "It's always fun. I wish we could catch them on a win."

Russell has been to two Blackhawks games but the team has lost both times.

"I'd like to go back -- I really like the games," he said. "I was talking to [Randy] Wells and some of the guys and if they win the [Stanley] Cup, I say we take [batting practice] in our hockey jerseys. I think that'd be awesome."

-- Carrie Muskat ... p;c_id=chc

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