Opening Day is a perfect time to think great thoughts about the upcoming season, a chance to dream about bigger things on the horizon.

But after Monday's 5-1 loss to the Reds left Carlos Zambrano winless in three consecutive Opening Day starts, he's ready for a change in the game plan in 2008.

"I'll talk to (Cubs manager) Lou (Piniella) next year and say I want to be the second[-game] starter," Zambrano said with a laugh.

Zambrano put the Cubs in a hole two batters into the first inning and yielded five runs on six hits and five walks in a subpar performance. Aaron Harang held the Cubs to one unearned run on six hits over seven innings, and Adam Dunn hit long home runs off Zambrano in his first two at-bats to provide all the support Harang needed.

"I don't know if [Zambrano] was overamped, but he certainly didn't pitch very well," Piniella said. "His command was off. He threw almost 50 percent balls to strikes, and out of the five runs he gave up, three of them were bases on balls and hit batters. It wasn't a very good performance."

Zambrano wasn't alone. On a picture-perfect day at Great American Ball Park, Cubs hitters went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Even if Zambrano had pitched better, you can't win without scoring.

"He wasn't as sharp as you will see or as he has been," right fielder Jacque Jones said. "But he battled his tail off, and we just didn't do anything to help him."

Zambrano said he was feeling good and had no excuses, though he conveniently blamed plate umpire Randy Marsh for a breadbox strike zone—not once, but twice.

"I made good pitches, and it was the umpire's decision. I can't do nothing about it," Zambrano said before adding, "It was all my fault."

Without prompting, Zambrano again noted Marsh's small zone, saying, "Hopefully [it won't be] the same umpire every day."

So did Zambrano think he got squeezed?

"A little bit, but he's a human," Zambrano replied. "Let's move on and think about [my next start in] Milwaukee."

Dunn's two-run blast off Zambrano in the first gave the Reds an early lead. But the Cubs got a break in the third when Ryan Freel beat out a chopper to shortstop Cesar Izturis and tried to take second when the throw sailed past first baseman Derrek Lee. The ball bounced right back to Lee, who threw out Freel at second.

Zambrano immediately pointed to the sky, a familiar gesture from the Cubs ace.

One pitch later, Dunn launched his second home run to right-center. Zambrano wasn't pointing this time.

"I tried to sink the ball, and it didn't sink," he said. "He's just a good hitter."

The Cubs loaded the bases in the fourth before Izturis ended the threat by popping out on the first pitch, and the Cubs never really threatened afterward. Their only run came in the fifth when Matt Murton got an infield hit and later scored on a Freel error.

"Izturis got a real good pitch to hit with the bases loaded," Piniella said. "He just popped it up. To me, it looked like an off-speed pitch centered right down the middle of the plate."

Piniella held a pregame meeting with his team and said his message was simple: "If you want to win, you've got to really get after it every day. You have to make sacrifices. Losing is easy. Winning is hard. But once you get in that habit of winning, boy, it's a fun thing to do."

Coming off a 96-loss season, the Cubs need to get into that winning habit quickly. With a blunt manager like Piniella, the alternative is too scary to ponder. But it was only one game.

"I wish we didn't have a day off [Tuesday]," Lee said. "We really wanted to start the season with a win, but it's all right. It's a long season."

psullivan@tribune.com