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Big Z goes for first Opening Day win

Big Z goes for first Opening Day win

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CHICAGO -- Before one of Carlos Zambrano's starts this spring, Lou Piniella was talking about how much the right-hander had changed.

"He's calmer," Piniella said of the Cubs' Opening Day pitcher. "I think it's the fact that he got his contract situation out of the way, and the fact that he won 18 ballgames, and knowing he had some rough spots last summer. I think he's very confident that he's going to have good success here. It's a quiet confidence that you want to see."

What the Cubs manager didn't know was that morning, a day Zambrano was pitching, the right-hander had ridden a neon orange and chrome-overloaded, big-wheeled ATV to HoHoKam Park. It wasn't exactly a calming sight.

Piniella must have soundproof walls. Quiet? Zambrano was recently overheard singing the Hallelujah chorus, only inserting "Fukudome" instead as he passed outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. You have to keep an eye out in the clubhouse or Zambrano will knock you over while riding a mountain bike through the room.

This spring, Zambrano didn't make any bold boasts or predictions. He's decided to let his pitching do the talking, and on Monday, Big Z will make his fourth consecutive Opening Day start when the Cubs begin defense of the National League Central title against their rivals to the north, the Milwaukee Brewers.

Rick Sutcliffe was the last Cubs pitcher to start at least four Opening Days, getting the ball five consecutive seasons from 1985-89. Zambrano is still looking for that first Opening Day win, and he joked this winter that he wanted to give Ted Lilly the honor.

"What I said at the convention [in January], I was just playing," Zambrano said. "I'm going to be out there the first day and try to win the first game. The one who invented the light tried 2,000-something times, and finally he did it. We have light. I don't want to spend 2,000 times to win the first game on Opening Day, but I think I will do it this year and go from there."

It is a different season for Zambrano. Last spring, he was steps away from an arbitration hearing but eventually settled, and the Cubs then re-worked his contract and presented him with a five-year, $91.5 million deal in August. It's part of the reason Zambrano was driving that ATV when he wasn't in a sleek, black Lamborghini.

"If you take it to Venezuela, you can go all speeds," he said of the sports car, "but not here."

At the time he signed, Zambrano had the highest average salary awarded to a pitcher in a multi-year contract in Major League history. Countryman Johan Santana passed that with his $137.5 million deal with the New York Mets. Santana's shift to the National League will make it even tougher for Zambrano to win a Cy Young. The Cubs right-hander sees it as motivation.

"I know he's one of the best pitchers in the big leagues," Zambrano said of the new Mets ace. "Believe me, when I saw that he signed in the National League with the Mets, I said that I have to work hard if I want to win the Cy Young. I have to work harder and do extra work. That's what it will take to win. If you are lazy, you won't go anywhere or win anything. If you want to go hard, you'll have a good season."

How good can Zambrano be?

"Cy Young, no doubt," Cubs catcher Geovany Soto said.

"Who knows?" Cubs pitcher Jon Lieber said. "That's the scary part. He's already good."

Lieber was the Cubs' last 20-game winner, going 20-6 in 2001. What does it take to win 20?

"You have to be injury-free," Lieber said. "You have to have a little bit of luck on your side. That's the great thing about [Zambrano] is he's capable of going out there and throwing a shutout. He has so many weapons. He's a very agile athlete, and he can run. He can do a lot of things to help his case. For me, I'm going to have a lot of fun watching him this year just because of what he can do on the mound."

Twenty wins may be too low an estimate.

"If he stays under control, he could win 25," Lieber said. "I'm sure there are a lot of guys who aren't real comfortable standing in there against him. He throws 95, 97 [mph] with heavy sink."

Zambrano set a career high with 18 wins last season, finishing 18-13 with a 3.95 ERA. He needs to be consistent to reach that magic 20. He was 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA last July, but followed that with an 0-4, 7.06 ERA in August. He has to improve at home (he was 12-4 on the road, 6-9 at Wrigley last season). It'll be up to Soto to keep Zambrano focused.

"You've got to be a psychiatrist, friend, all that stuff with him, but the main thing is you don't want him extra calm, you want him to pitch the way he pitches," Soto said. "Emotion is good as long as it's under control. You want good emotion. You want to keep him pumped for the game, and not too wild."

That sounds like a tough job.

"It is," Soto said.

He and Zambrano report to work on Monday.

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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