Carlos Zambrano, you done growed up.
And as a Cubs fan, I couldn't be prouder to think that maybe, just maybe, Z has, at nearly age 28, matured enough to be that #1 starter that we've been wanting him to be ever since he burst onto the major league scene in 2003.
The Cubs are already a game ahead of last year's pace; last year they lost their first two, but they're 1-0 after a convincing 4-2 win over the Astros in front of a Juice Box record crowd of 43,827, many of whom were loudly audible on the ESPN2 telecast rooting for the boys in blue.
Everything worked right today. Z threw six-plus innings, 97 pitches (59 strikes) before running out of gas in the seventh. Aaron Heilman, Neal Cotts and Carlos Marmol did their jobs setting up Kevin Gregg, who posted his first Cubs save. Granted, he allowed a run, but also, that run wasn't really his fault. After Milton Bradley gave Cub Nation heart failure by appearing to give himself an ankle sprain running across first base in the top of the 8th, I was surprised to see him still out there in the 9th inning. Joey Gathright moved into CF to replace Kosuke Fukudome -- but Fukudome, despite his offensive struggles, is still a plus right fielder. Why wouldn't you move Fukudome to RF and pull Bradley, especially when there might be an injury concern?
Bradley made a valiant effort on Geoff Blum's sinking line drive but couldn't come up with it. That put runners on first and third with nobody out, and a run scored on a sac fly, but Gregg bore down and retired Michael Bourn and ex-Cub Jason Smith (yes, ex-Cub, two games in 2001 before being shipped to Tampa Bay as the PTBNL in the Fred McGriff deal) to end it.
Everything worked right: Alfonso Soriano hit his 50th career leadoff homer... and was on pace for an infinite number of homers before he made an out in his second at-bat. Aramis Ramirez also homered and in so doing, reached two milestones: it was the 250th homer of his career (putting him alone in 192nd place on the all-time list), and 174th as a Cub, which ties him with Andre Dawson for 10th place on the all-time Cub list. If Aramis hits 33 or more homers this year -- and he's averaged 32 in his five full years as a Cub -- he will have 206, which would put him past Bill Nicholson and into 7th place on the list. That would trail only Sammy Sosa, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg and Gabby Hartnett. Pretty good company for A-Ram.
The Cubs also manufactured a run in the 4th on a Little Babe Ruth double, a groundout and a sacrifice fly and -- wait for it -- Micah Hoffpauir had a really nice pinch-hit AB in the 9th and drove in a run. If he can produce like that all year, I'll be happy to say I was wrong about him.
This isn't the first time I have watched a road opener from Arizona -- I saw the 2004 opener against the Reds on TV from here (via WGN), and was at the 2005 opener here against the Diamondbacks, the one where Z had a meltdown on the mound and had to be yanked one out short of qualifying for a win (the Cubs were leading 9-3 at the time). So it was strange to share in that out-of-town experience that a lot of you have, watching the game via ESPN. Dave O'Brien and Rick Sutcliffe did their usual good job; I like Sutcliffe and since he's a former Cub, he knows a lot about our team. But I have a few words for ESPN's producers:
Hey. Guys. PSST. The 100-year thing? We know. WE KNOW. WE FREAKING KNOW. Can you guys knock it off now?
At least they waited till the sixth inning today.
But the story of the game was Z. It was his first Opening Day victory in five tries (though he threw well in the 2008 opener and got no decision). Here's hoping he keep his head on straight, his shoulder healthy, and his pitches down all year... and maybe we have that ace we've been dreaming of.
Site notes: normally, I'll post recaps for night games the morning after, but since I'm still on Arizona time and today's game ended fairly early, thought I'd post this one tonight and let you get an early start on it. Also, I was remiss in not posting the MLB.com Gameday link on the pregame thread, which I have been doing since last year. It'll return tomorrow.