In Carlos Zambrano's mind, the season is still too young to be overly concerned with his lackluster numbers.
After giving up six runs in six innings Thursday in the Cubs' 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field, Zambrano repeated his mantra."This is the beginning of the season," he said. "That's not an excuse, but this is a team that will be in the playoffs. And that's where Zambrano counts, or any pitcher here counts -- in the playoffs."
But to get to the postseason, the Cubs need Zambrano to pitch like the Zambrano of old. He gave up three first-inning runs Thursday, after allowing four in the first against Washington last Friday.
"You have your ace on the mound and you get a shutout from [Jason] Marquis [on Wednesday night] and you're looking hopefully to go 5-1 on this [homestand]," manager Lou Piniella said. "And before you know it, we're down three before the game even starts."
Catcher Henry Blanco said one good outing will "get him on a roll," and suggested a mechanical change will help solve Zambrano's problems. But Blanco also warned Zambrano must be more aggressive in the first innings or he will continue to flounder.
"The last couple of outings, he's having trouble in the first inning," Blanco said. "That's something he has to think about, come out next time real aggressive.
"We all can see it. That's one thing he has to understand. He can lose a ballgame in the first inning."
Piniella said Zambrano is flying open on his delivery, giving batters more time to pick up his pitches. Zambrano's velocity was also down to 88 m.p.h. in the first inning, before climbing to 93 as the game wore on.
Zambrano agreed mechanical changes are necessary and he has been working on changing his arm angle. But he wasn't concerned about his velocity.
"This is my sixth year in the big leagues," Zambrano said. "I'm getting old. I think all the people, when they used to be 20, 21 or 22, they used to throw hard -- 98, 97 -- like Roger Clemens. And he went down to 93-94. But [the problem] has nothing to do with velocity."
Old? Zambrano turns 26 on June 1.
"I mean 'veteran,' " he said. "You think I'm old? I feel good. Sooner or later, I will back it up and start doing my job."
The Cubs hope it's much sooner than later. With a 3-3 record and 5.83 earned-run average, Zambrano has been the weak link of a rotation that entered the day third in the National League in starting pitching with a 3.44 ERA, just behind the New York Mets' league-leading 3.42 ERA.
Last year, Cubs starters ranked 16th with a 5.19 ERA. Rich Hill, Ted Lilly and Marquis have combined to go 11-4 with a 2.07 ERA.
"They have to do their jobs, and I have to do my job," Zambrano said. "They're doing their job, and when I start hitting the spots and making the pitches, the thing will turn around."
Zambrano put the Cubs behind the eight-ball again, hitting leadoff man Freddy Sanchez and giving up a double to Jose Bautista. Jason Bay followed with a blooper to right that took a strange bounce past Matt Murton as two runs scored. Xavier Nady's sacrifice fly added another run in a 35-pitch inning.
After a perfect second, Zambrano issued a two-out walk to Ryan Doumit in the third and watched him score when Murton dropped Nady's fly at the wall. Adam LaRoche followed with an RBI single before Bay homered leading off the fifth to make it 6-1.
Angel Pagan's solo homer in the sixth and Michael Barrett's pinch-hit, two-run shot off Paul Maholm (2-4) in the eighth pulled the Cubs to within two.
"I think everybody knows what I'm capable of doing," Zambrano said. "Just an ugly game. That's it. I'm not frustrated. I will still pitch my game and will still be out fighting for my team. I have nothing to complain about."
PIRATES 6, CUBS 4