CHICAGO (AP) — Carlos Zambrano's dugout meltdown last month is just one of the problems facing the Cubs as they head toward the All-Star break. What ails the longtime losers goes much deeper than that and it's on full display in Tom Ricketts' first season as owner.
Poor offensive seasons by 3-4 hitters Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez have helped put the Cubs into a hole that could make sellers at the trade deadline. It's also put into question the future of manager Lou Piniella, who's in the fourth and final year of his contract.
If it's not one thing, it's another for a team going on 102 years without a World Series title.
There have been embarrassing losses. Last weekend at home against the first-place Reds, the Cubs gave up nine runs in one inning and two days later surrendered eight in another frame during a game that saw Cincinnati hit seven homers. During their one victory in the four-game series against former manager Dusty Baker, Chicago stranded 17 runners.
"I don't like to lose. I don't think anybody does," Piniella said. "But what am I going to do, jump off the Hancock building?"
In an interview with writers this week in Phoenix, where the Cubs were visiting the Diamondbacks, Piniella said he was planning to keep his job for the rest of the season. He led the Cubs to division titles in his first two seasons, but they fell short last year and things don't look good this year with the team already some 10 games out of the NL Central lead.
"I'm not a quitter," Piniella said. "In this business, you better be prepared to take the good with the bad. I mean, nobody wants the bad, but at the same time it happens."
It happens often enough with the emotional Zambrano, the one-time ace who was surprisingly sent to the bullpen April 22 and finally rejoined the rotation in early June. Zambrano, who signed a five-year, $91.5 million contract in 2007, is just 3-6 with a 5.66 ERA in 22 games this season, including nine starts.
His outburst at U.S. Cellular Field was even more embarrassing because it came against the White Sox after he surrendered four runs in the first inning. He apparently was upset because some teammates didn't try to make diving stops on some hits, but whatever the reason the tirade has been replayed numerous times.
Zambrano was sent home by Piniella, suspended, put on a restricted list and then assigned to an unspecified treatment program. When he returns after the All-Star break, he'll be back in the bullpen.
"It was a good idea — a very good idea, actually — to wait 'til after the All-Star break before he came in and addressed the team," Piniella said. "Things will quiet down a heck of a lot. And I think that the players will accept Carlos as a teammate."
Five months ago in spring training, Zambrano promised he would be a new man. No more outbursts or tantrums like the one against umpire Mark Carlson last season that resulted in a six-game suspension. Or the fight with catcher Michael Barrett in 2007 that started in the dugout and spilled into the clubhouse, with Barrett needing six stitches after the altercation.
"Believe me. I think I passed that stage where everything gets me mad," Zambrano said this spring. "That's why you will see a Carlos Zambrano smiling and laughing with everybody."
Well, there's still time. And there are bright spots on the Cubs.
Right-hander Carlos Silva, acquired in a trade for another player known for emotional outbursts — Milton Bradley — new center fielder Marlon Byrd and rookie Tyler Colvin are playing well along with steady closer Carlos Marmol.
But without the former ace, Zambrano, the Cubs' pitching has been spotty. And despite a solid rebound season from Alfonso Soriano, the offense has struggled even after they added a new hitting coach in the revered Rudy Jaramillo.
Byrd, who has made the All-Star team in his first season with the Cubs, said the team must concentrate on winning series.
"That's why were in the position we are," Byrd said. "Four-game series, we're winning one. Three-game series, we're winning one. That's not going to get it done."
(This version CORRECTS year of contract signing in 8th paragraph.)