To Big Z's credit, he didn't allow a run in his final two starts last September and tossed six innings of one-run ball in his lone playoff start. That's the Zambrano the club would like to see emerge from this "dead arm" phase.
He's not the only starter being treated carefully. Ryan Dempster gets one more day between starts this week, and Rich Harden gets skipped one turn in the rotation. It's an effort to keep the staff fresh for the stretch run.
"With a couple extra days off, you definitely feel stronger," Harden said. "It can make a difference, especially late in the season. You're getting a little tired, and it helps."
The club is more concerned about Harden than Dempster because of his well-documented health issues. Harden has thrown 131 innings between Oakland and Chicago this season, which is more than his previous two years combined.
Harden said that his arm felt fine and understood that the time off is to prepare him better for bigger games later on.
"I'm at a point now where I don't feel like I need consistent work to go out there and feel great," he said.
The Cubs have more of a luxury to give players breathers than last year. They entered September with a 4 1/2-game lead on Milwaukee, as opposed to a 1 1/2-game edge in 2007. They're also 10 games up on the Wild Card leaders.
"I've liked our position all year," manager Lou Piniella said. "But I also recognize that all we've done is gotten ourselves in position. Now, we've got to continue to play to close the deal. That's exactly what we're going to try to do here in September."
CHC: RHP Carlos Zambrano (13-5, 3.53 ERA)
The Cubs tweaked their rotation to give Zambrano extra time because of a tired arm. He had been scheduled to start Sunday. Big Z is 7-1 in 14 starts at Wrigley Field. His velocity had dropped in August, and the Cubs are hoping an extra day or two will help. He did throw a short side session on Sunday.
HOU: RHP Brandon Backe (9-12, 5.42 ERA)
Backe strung together two consecutive successful outings with a 3-2 series finale win over the Reds, something that has eluded him this season. Backe has suffered from inconsistency, but is solid when he can keep his pitches low in the zone. The right-hander gave up two runs over 6 2/3 innings against Cincinnati, throwing 64 pitches and allowing three hits in the first six shutout frames; he was pulled after allowing two runs in the seventh inning. Backe has lost two of three against the Cubs this season, recording a no-decision in the third game. He gave up 11 runs on nine hits over 3 1/3 innings in his last visit to Wrigley Field, walking six and allowing two home runs.
Several Cubs spent time before Monday's game fixed on TV coverage of Hurricane Gustav. Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot and Chad Gaudin have family in Louisiana. ... Tyler Colvin went 2-for-4 with a double in Double-A Tennessee's forgettable 21-2 loss to Carolina on Monday. ... Class A Daytona clinched the Florida State League's second-half East Division title by beating Jupiter, 9-2, in the completion of a suspended game. It opens a best-of-three playoff series against Palm Beach on Tuesday. ... Class A Boise third baseman Josh Vitters, shortstop Ryan Flaherty, second baseman Josh Harrison and first baseman Ryan Keedy were selected to the Northwest League All-Star team.
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Official game notes
Wednesday: Cubs (Ryan Dempster, 15-5, 2.95) vs. Astros (Randy Wolf, 8-11, 4.73), 7:05 p.m. CT
Friday: Cubs (Ted Lilly, 13-8, 4.23) at Reds (TBD), 6:10 p.m. CT