Big Z makes his return vs. the Redbirds

Big Z makes his return vs. Redbirds

SAN FRANCSISCO -- Carlos Zambrano will pitch Friday after a two-week stint on the disabled list, and, obviously, Cubs manager Lou Piniella is excited. He's getting his ace back.

In pitching the opening game of a three-day set against the Cardinals, Zambrano will provide some consistency to a rotation that recently has been shaky.

Who else is happy about Zambrano's return? The relievers. Not just because "Big Z" is an innings-eater; not just because he's likely to put some zeroes on the scoreboard.

They love the intensity Zambrano brings. When the guy pitching for seven innings is as intense as you are for three outs, reliever Scott Eyre said, you get extra motivated.

"You never want to give up runs as a reliever, but when guys are even more emotionally charged than you are, you want to be even better," Eyre said. "You're more intense when the guy in front of you is that intense."

Of course, the fact that Zambrano often is as dominating as he is emotional isn't a bad thing. Zambrano is a losing-streak stopper, Jason Marquis said. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, but he no longer lets them affect his outings.

"He's a huge lift," Marquis said. "We did well without him, but it's nice to have a guy like that in your back pocket."

Because the Cubs don't want their $91.5 million pitcher getting hurt again, Piniella said they'd be extra careful with him. The skipper said the team consistently monitors every starter's pitch counts, and Zambrano is no exception. He'll throw about 85-90 pitches Friday. If he throws well, Piniella said, he might last six innings.

"We're starting to get a little healthier, we can use it," Piniella said. "You need your horses going."

Especially when those horses are as talented as Zambrano. In eight years in the Majors, Zambrano has 90 wins and 3.39 ERA. He's pitched 200 or more innings and had 150 or more strikeouts in his past five seasons. In 16 starts this season, he has a 3.13 ERA in 107 innings.

"The big guy has matured and he's getting better and better," Eyre said. "That's a scary thought since he was so good when he was first starting."

In a National League Central that is surprisingly deep, Zambrano's contribution is vital to the Cubs' playoff chances. The Cardinals, Chicago's closest division rival, surprised a lot of analysts this year with their first-half success.

But Piniella saw it coming.

"What people don't realize," Piniella said, "[is] names don't win baseball games, production does. And they're producing.

"Their pitchers have done a nice job. Any team that has an Albert Pujols in the middle part of their lineup certainly has a capability of scoring runs."

Pitching matchup
CHC: RHP Carlos Zambrano (8-3, 3.13 ERA)
Zambrano will make his first start since June 18. He had to come out of that game because of a strained right shoulder, and went on the disabled list for the first time in his career. The right-hander had a bullpen session on Sunday, and said he benefited from the time off. He felt great, especially his slider and sinker. He was 3-0 with a 1.69 ERA last year against the Cardinals.

STL: RHP Braden Looper (9-5, 4.26 ERA)
Looper was the victim of a strange start his last time out. Against the Royals, Looper lasted 3 1/3 innings and was given a quick hook from manager Tony La Russa. Rather than let things get out of hand on a windy day, La Russa took out Looper, who was not sharp in his outing. Looper has a great deal of experience against the Cubs, facing them 36 times in his career. So far, that experience has led to success on the mound, as Looper has produced a 2.37 ERA in 64 2/3 innings.

The Cubs were pleased with the results they received from X-rays on Alfonso Soriano's broken left hand Thursday. Soriano will join the team in St. Louis on Friday and begin taking batting practice off of a tee. ... The Cubs and Cardinals may be rivals, but Jim Edmonds likely will be applauded when he returns to St. Louis on Friday. He was a three-time All-Star in eight seasons there. "I think he'll get a wonderful reception," Piniella said. ... Piniella had a meeting with reliever Carlos Marmol before Thursday's game. The right-hander has been struggling with his control during the past two weeks, but Piniella doesn't think he's got confidence issues. "I think he's OK," the skipper said. "Just location, nothing more." ... Ted Lilly will pitch against the Cardinals on Saturday and Sean Marshall will start Sunday, unless Lilly asks Piniella for an extra day of rest. ... Doug Deeds, a right fielder with Double-A Tennessee, had four hits, including a walk-off home run, Wednesday night. He's batting .512 in his past 10 games. In Class A action, pitcher Marco Carillo tossed eight shutout innings for the Daytona Cubs on Wednesday. He's working on a 14-inning scoreless streak.

 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WGN 720

Up next
• Saturday: Cubs (Ted Lilly, 9-5, 4.56) at Cardinals (Kyle Lohse, 10-2, 3.67), 2:55 p.m. CT
• Sunday: Cubs (Sean Marshall, 0-2, 4.87) at Cardinals (Todd Wellemeyer, 7-3, 3.86), 2:15 p.m. CT
• Monday: Off-day

David Biderman is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.