Zambrano strikes early gold

Chicago CubsMilwaukee BrewersJason MarquisRyan FreelBob HowryHenry BlancoLou Piniella

The difference in the Carlos Zambrano who pitched Saturday and his evil twin from Opening Day was evident from the outset.

Zambrano struck out leadoff hitter Rickie Weeks on three pitches in the first inning of the Cubs' 6-3 victory over Milwaukee and wound up striking out the side.

Monday at Cincinnati, Zambrano walked leadoff hitter Ryan Freel on four pitches and wound up walking five batters over five innings in a shaky performance.

"The difference? He threw more strikes," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Opening Day, he was all over the place.

"What a difference, the first hitter he faced—Weeks—as opposed to Freel, who he walked on four pitches that weren't even close. It set the tone."

Zambrano, who didn't win a game in six starts last April and lost this season's opener in Cincinnati, allowed three runs on five hits in seven innings to even his record at 1-1.

He also struck out six and walked two, while adding an RBI single in the second off Brewers ace Ben Sheets.

"The difference is it's a different ballclub," Zambrano said. "Cincinnati has better hitters than Milwaukee. I'm not saying the Milwaukee Brewers are nothing, but the offense of the Cincinnati Reds is better, and [you can't make] any mistakes in Cincinnati.

"They have Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey and all those guys. When you make a mistake, you will pay for it. Sometimes when you make a mistake here, sometimes they miss it. That's good."

Following dominant performances from starters Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Rich Hill, Zambrano came out Saturday like a man possessed.

"It's not bad for your starting pitchers to compete against themselves a little bit," Piniella said.

"We've had four really nice efforts from our starters the last four games. Competition is good for them."

With his father in the stands after making the trip from Venezuela, Zambrano retired the first nine men before Weeks hit a home run leading off the fourth inning to cut the Cubs' lead to 2-1.

But Derrek Lee's infield hit and Aramis Ramirez's two-run homer made it 4-1 in the sixth, and the Cubs tagged on another run in the inning on Henry Blanco's sacrifice fly.

Lee's run-scoring single in the seventh, his first RBI of the season, gave the Cubs a 6-2 lead for relievers Bob Howry and Ryan Dempster after Zambrano tired.

While Zambrano may be back in the groove, negotiations over a five-year contract have been on hold since the announcement Monday that Tribune Co. was selling the Cubs.

Asked about the contract after Saturday's game, Zambrano said, "We're almost there."

But he also confirmed there were no meetings scheduled between Cubs officials and his agent.

"I'm ready for the season," he said. "I don't want to talk about that. … If you ask a question like that, you have to ask my agent."

psullivan@tribune.com

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