Big Z returning to scene of dugout tirade

Carlos Zambrano has a knack for attracting attention.

Whether the Chicago Cubs starter is calling out (then apologizing to) a teammate or saying he’d waive his no-trade clause while emphasizing that he wants to be a Cub for life, all eyes on the North Side always seems to come back to Zambrano.

The spotlight will be on him again in Monday’s start against the Chicago White Sox, when Zambrano makes his first trip to U.S. Cellular Field since last June’s dugout tirade that landed him on the restricted list, serving an indefinite suspension.

After Zambrano gave up four first-inning runs to the Sox on June 25, he angrily confronted teammate Derrek Lee in the dugout. Then-Cubs manager Lou Piniella and his coaches stepped between the players and sent Zambrano home. In the aftermath, Zambrano underwent anger management sessions and didn’t return to the Cubs for over a month.

Cubs manager Mike Quade isn’t sure if Zambrano is better prepared to handle tumultuous situations than he was a year ago. However, Quade insisted that those issues aren’t of concern and all that matters is Zambrano’s performance on the mound.

“I’ve kind of put all of that behind me and I expect him to pitch well and to be the guy he’s been in the last [few] months,” Quade said. “I think he’ll take the ball and I think he’ll pitch well, that’s what I really care about.”

Zambrano has done well so far since then to eliminate the in-game blowups, but just three weeks ago, after a tough loss, he called out closer Carlos Marmol for his pitch selection and said the Cubs were playing at a Triple-A level. While nobody questioned Zambrano’s assessment of his team’s atrocious play, most agreed that blaming a teammate in the media isn’t the best way to go about your business.

Zambrano seemed to feel the same way, appearing genuinely remorseful the next day when apologizing for his critical comments towards Marmol. It’s moments like that, as well as his more level-headed demeanor on the field, that lead some of his teammates to believe that Zambrano is a changed person since last season’s episode.

“The best thing that happens in this game is we play one game at a time,” Alfonso Soriano said. “That happened last year. He’s not thinking about what happened last year, he’s focused on this year. I think he’ll go out and perform well [Monday].”

Good performances have been a rare occurrence for Zambrano on the South Side, where he’s posted a 5.88 ERA in 33 2/3 innings pitched.

However, the Cubs are hopeful that this time he’ll only make news for a stellar performance inside the white lines.