Big Z's off opener too much to overcome

Big Z's off opener too much to overcome

ATLANTA -- This spring, the Cubs' pitching was the least of Lou Piniella's worries, but on Opening Day, it was embarrassing.

Carlos Zambrano made his sixth straight Opening Day start Monday, a Cubs record. It also was shorter than his first Cactus League outing.

In 1 1/3 innings against Atlanta on Monday, Zambrano served up eight runs on six hits -- including two homers -- hit a batter, and made a throwing error that led to a run as the Braves beat the Cubs, 16-5. It's the worst Opening Day loss for the North Siders since 1884, when the Cubs lost, 15-3, to the New York Giants.

"I never envisioned giving up 16 runs on Opening Day -- never in my wildest dreams," Piniella said. "[We gave up] 16 runs after we pitched really well all spring. And not only did we pitch well, but we threw strikes and got ahead of the hitters. Today was the complete opposite.

"You can't pitch from behind against a good-hitting team," Piniella said. "And you certainly can't walk people against a good-hitting team, and that's exactly what we did."

This matched Zambrano's shortest start ever. On Sept. 4, 2006, he also went 1 1/3 innings, but he exited that game because of back problems. Big Z is 1-2 with a 6.99 ERA (22 earned runs over 28 1/3 innings) in his Opening Day starts.

"He's certainly capable of doing a heck of a lot better," Piniella said.

What happened?

"Too many pitches in the middle," Zambrano said. "They have a good lineup. Against a team like that, you can't put the ball in the middle. You have to hit the spots and the corner if you want to pitch good against the Braves."

Marlon Byrd gave his hometown buddies something to cheer about in the first, hitting a three-run homer off Derek Lowe (1-0). He's the first Cubs player to homer in his debut at-bat for the team since Henry Rodriguez did so March 31, 1998. Aramis Ramirez, who did not hit a home run all spring, added a two-run shot with two outs in the third.

Braves rookie sensation Jason Heyward topped Byrd when he crushed a 2-0 pitch from Zambrano (0-1) for his first Major League home run, a three-run shot, in his first at-bat in the first.

"I knew he was going to be great 'cuz he's a Georgia boy," Byrd said. "Everything they talked about, he's the real deal."

It was an eventful first. The Braves sent 10 batters to the plate, beginning with Melky Cabrera, who walked. Zambrano served up three straight singles, including two bloopers, before striking out Troy Glaus. Escobar drove in two with his single, and Heyward, greeted by "Let's go Heyward" chants from the sellout crowd of 53,081, followed with his blast to make it 6-3.

"The chances of that happening are slim and none," Atlanta's Billy Wagner said of Heyward connecting off Zambrano. "Big Z is up there, and he's filthy. That just doesn't happen very often."

Piniella had hoped Zambrano could go three or four innings after the rough first, but the right-hander hit Martin Prado to start the second. Chipper Jones bounced a grounder to second baseman Mike Fontenot, who threw to Zambrano covering at first. But after making the putout, Zambrano threw wildly over Ramirez at third in an attempt to get Prado, who scored on the error. Brian McCann followed with his first homer, off a 2-1 pitch, for an 8-3 Atlanta lead. Again, Zambrano was behind in the count.

"I have the tools to pitch good in April," Zambrano said. "I just had a bad game. I've put it behind me. Today, it happened, I gave up eight runs and like I say, 'I will concentrate on my next start.'"

The momentum seemed to turn in the Cubs' favor as Sean Marshall struck out five over 2 2/3 innings and rookie James Russell made his Major League debut one to remember, throwing two scoreless innings.

Byrd and Ramirez were doubled up on a questionable call in the sixth, as umpire Marvin Hudson ruled Nate McLouth caught Byrd's fly ball when replays showed he dropped it. Jeff Samardzija was charged with six more runs in the seventh, and the game was over.

"It's only the first game, and there's still a lot of baseball to be played," Samardzija said. "I can only speak for myself -- you can't walk guys, you can't give up free passes, you have to make them put the ball in play."

The Cubs led the Major Leagues with four spring shutouts, and the team's 4.24 ERA was sixth-best in the big leagues. None of those numbers matter now.

"We'll sort this thing out," Piniella said. "It's only the first game of the season -- somewhat of an embarrassing loss, but at the same time it's only one game. We'll go from there."

Before the game, Piniella met with the players.

"A little message -- practice is over and this starts for real now," Piniella said. "I told them that we had a real good spring and build on the things we did in the spring and not forget to have fun. This is a business, a livelihood, but it's a game. The more relaxed, the more fun you have, the better you can play the game."

Monday wasn't much fun.

"You don't want to lose Opening Day," Byrd said, "but at the same time, it's about winning series. If you win two out of three, nobody will remember this game."

That's what Zambrano is probably hoping for, too.

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