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Notes: Zambrano on the right track

Notes: Zambrano on the right track

MESA, Ariz. -- Carlos Zambrano isn't going to make any predictions about what type of season he'll have, but the pitcher says he's on the right track toward having a breakout year.

Zambrano, who won a career-high 18 games last season, tuned up with two innings against the San Francisco Giants on Friday and was charged with one unearned run -- he made the error on a fielding play -- on two hits over two innings. The right-hander, who will start Opening Day for the Cubs, said he feels better than he did at this point a year ago.

"I feel better than last year with my arm slot," Zambrano said. "At this point I was 75, 80 percent, and now I'm 90 percent. That's good. When I feel like this, I'm ready to go for the season."

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Does that mean he's going to predict a Cy Young Award?

"I'm talking about getting the first game against Milwaukee [in the season opener], and from that I will get more games one by one," he said, avoiding any boasts like he made a year ago.

"He's more serious," manager Lou Piniella said of Zambrano. "He's worked hard. He had some rough spots last summer and still won 18 ballgames. You eliminate a rough spot or two, and you're in the elite in wins. With this team here, with his ability, it's within his grasp with a little more consistency."

Arms race: Carlos Marmol retired the side in order in the ninth inning on Friday in his first Cactus League outing. Marmol is competing with Kerry Wood and Bob Howry for the closer job. The other two are slated to pitch on Saturday.

Marmol is the youngest of the three contenders, and he has the least experience. Does he have a chance?

"That's why we have Spring Training," Piniella said. "I don't have much to say about that because first of all, the pitchers will tell us, No. 1, and No. 2, whether you close in Spring Training or pitch the fifth inning, you'll get the same amount of work and the same routine. We don't have to change anything except the inning he pitches."

Christmas in February: Alfonso Soriano laughed about his first at-bat on Friday. He drew a walk. Last spring, Soriano totaled three walks.

"I'm a little surprised," Soriano said. "In four months I saw one ball in a real game. I feel better than last year. I saw the ball good, and it's just a little more timing."

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Soriano is more at ease in his second season with the Cubs.

"It's my second year here, and I know everybody," he said. "I feel like family here. I feel like I already have five, six years in this organization, and now it's more relaxed."

His legs feel strong, although that may change after a postgame workout on the back field with Tim Buss, the team's strength and conditioning coach. Soriano isn't worried about running.

"Now I want to concentrate at home plate, and have good at-bats," he said.

It just felt good to get in a game.

"I feel like a kid who got a new toy," Soriano said.

Quick step: Part of Rich Hill's work this spring involves quickening his delivery in an attempt to keep players from running on him.

"I think it's something he's comfortable with and can stay with and doesn't have to readjust or adjust too much and just ... pitch," Piniella said. "I think that will help him."

"It's not 100 percent there, but it's a good step in the right direction," Hill said after pitching two innings on Friday against the Giants. "Obviously, it was a little erratic trying to get used to being quick to home. The fastball was coming out well, I was locating well with the fastball, and that's always the first thing you work for, and want to see."

The changes Hill has made aren't major, but Piniella said that they timed his delivery on Friday, and he was quicker than a year ago. Hill was pleased by his outing, especially his ability to make an adjustment on his curve.

"I threw one for a ball, then came back and threw one for a strike, and another for a strike, and put a guy away with one, and that was definitely a positive," he said.

Last spring Hill did not walk a batter over 15 2/3 innings. He did not issue a walk on Friday, either. He's more focused on improving the mental part of his game.

"Last year the whole thing was keeping that focus from April all the way though the season," Hill said. "Why are guys so consistent for a whole season instead of having these spikes in their work? I think the biggest part is the focus. That's what I've been working on since getting in here, day one of Spring Training. You see where you came from last year, and what do you want to do this year differently. Focus on what you need to do and lead with the attitude that you're going to come back the next day with that same attitude."

Konnichiwa: Kosuke Fukudome has shown a lot of patience at the plate. He walked twice and scored two runs, and made his first out of Spring Training when he flew out in the fifth.

"Let the kid play," Piniella said of the Japanese right fielder. "He's a solid Major League player. He just needs some at-bats, to get used to pitching over here a little bit."

Piniella is keeping quiet around the batting cage, too.

"I don't have to say anything," he said. "He's got his own style of hitting. He'll go to left field, he'll pull the ball, he'll use the whole field to hit with, and that's the type of hitter he should be."

Fukudome also flashed his defensive skills when he nearly threw out Dave Roberts at third base in the third inning.

"He made a nice play on the ball hit to right field -- I didn't think there would be a play on Roberts, and it could've been a close play," Piniella said. "He's going to play well. He has good instincts in the outfield. He gets his feet in position well, and he lets that ball go."

Mr. Cub: Ernie Banks will ring the opening bell at the Chicago Board Options Exchange on Monday to kick off the Cubs first auction of Wrigley Field season tickets. The CBOE has designated Monday as "Cubs Day" at the exchange, and staff and members will crowd the trading floor for the opening bell in Cubs red, white and blue.

Extra bases: Jeff Samardzija threw a simulated game on a back field early Friday. It was expected to be his last tuneup before getting into Cactus League action. ... On March 9 the Cubs will travel to Surprise to play the Kansas City Royals. Some schedules list that as a home game for the Cubs in Mesa. ... Looking for lunch at HoHoKam Park? Check out Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins' Iowa pork tenderloin sandwiches at "Fergie's Big Bites" in the right-field corner.

On deck: The Cubs travel to Tempe on Saturday to face the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Jason Marquis is slated to start for the Cubs. The game will be broadcast on Comcast Sports Net. Len Kasper will be joined by Dan Plesac, who is subbing for Bob Brenly, as Brenly has a family commitment for the weekend.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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