Zambrano gets a leg up on opposition
Big Z follows Rothschild's advice, avoids standing straight up
MILWAUKEE -- The key to Carlos Zambrano's no-hitter Sunday night wasn't his arm. It was his legs.
That's what Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild saw.
"He warmed up really well tonight and used his legs well," Rothschild said after Zambrano threw his first career no-hitter in the Cubs' 5-0 win over the Astros at Miller Park.
"When he's using his legs, it means his arm feels good," Rothschild said. "When I saw that right away, I said, 'This is good.'"
Sunday was Zambrano's first start since Sept. 2. He had come out of that game against the Astros after five innings because he was feeling some discomfort in his right shoulder. An MRI exam revealed tendinitis, but that was it. The righty was shut down, and Rothschild monitored his side sessions. Each time Zambrano threw, he looked good.
The plan Sunday was to have Big Z throw 90-95 pitches to keep him healthy for the final two weeks and, hopefully, the postseason.
Rothschild saw the Miller Park radar gun show 98 mph in the first inning on one of Zambrano's pitches.
"The question after that was, would he maintain it?" Rothschild said. "He did throughout the game. When he needed to reach back, he did. The movement at 94, 95 [mph] was hard to handle."
Still, how can a power pitcher like Zambrano miss all that time and come out firing bullets?
"You describe it as 'Z,'" Rothschild said. "That's all you need to know. It's Carlos all the way."
Zambrano, 27, is a little different. He is often animated, jumping up and down, screaming at himself, and gesturing at who knows what. His emotions sometimes get the best of him. Not this time.
"The concentration between innings was there, he stayed in the dugout, he stayed glued on the game," Rothschild said. "With two outs, he had his glove on, ready to go. In the one inning, he had it on a long time, which was good. He didn't need much tonight. He could've done this if Benny Hill was coaching tonight."
Rothschild had seen Zambrano in this same mode once before, on Aug. 22, 2003, against Arizona. In that game, the right-hander threw seven no-hit innings.
"I shouldn't say this, but in the first inning, it was similar to the game in Arizona when he took the no-hitter into the eighth inning," Rothschild said. "When I saw the stuff tonight, I thought this was eerie -- it's a dome, the roof was closed there [in Arizona], it's closed tonight, and we were in the first-base dugout tonight, too. It was kind of strange. I said, 'I don't know what will happen here. If he maintains his stuff, he'll have a chance.'"
Cubs manager Lou Piniella wasn't going to mess with Zambrano. He didn't have anyone warming up in the bullpen until the ninth. He also wasn't going to pull the right-hander early.
"We were talking before the ballgame about 90 pitches," Piniella said of the limit for Zambrano, "but I told [bench coach Alan Trammell], 'If he's got to come out of the game, you go get him. I'm not.'"
The pro-Cubs crowd of 23,441 most likely wouldn't have let Piniella pull Big Z.
Zambrano was asked to explain how he could be so dazzling after the layoff.
"I don't know, man," he said. "My arm is weird."
He's fooled around sometimes on the side, pretending to rear back and throw like Hideo Nomo, and ends up hitting 92-93 mph. He'll be playing catch with Geovany Soto and see the scoreboard show 97-98 mph.
"When you use your legs like Larry has been teling me all the time, when you use your legs perfectly, it's not with your arm, it's combining your legs and arms with that," Zambrano said. "Sometimes I try to throw hard, and I open up and my arm is driving down and I throw a flat pitch and just hit 92, 93."
The legs are the key. When Zambrano isn't feeling 100 percent, he tends to stand straight up and throw the ball, Rothschild said. Soto is able to get the right-hander back on track. The rookie catcher deserves a lot of credit for not only calling pitches, but keeping the emotional Zambrano under control. Soto estimated that Zambrano shook him off once or twice on Sunday. However, the rookie may have to watch a video of the game to realize what happened.
"After the third inning, the game was going so quick, and he was making really good pitches and throwing hard," Soto said. "After the third, fourth innings, I don't know what I called in the fifth, sixth, seventh. I looked up and it was the eighth."
The Cubs didn't stay away from Zambrano as the game progressed, or look the other way. It was business as usual.
"We tried to do the same thing we were doing the whole game, and tried to have quick innings," Soto said.
Was Soto nervous?
"I just want to win ballgames, and this is all extra," he said. "This is awesome. Enough about me, it's his day. He was pitching, and he deserves all the credit."
Zambrano's teammates could sense it was a special game.
"Even from the first and second inning, what a good feeling to have him back on the mound lighting up the radar gun," Chicago's Mark DeRosa said. "He had dominating stuff from pitch one to the end. This is the second [no-hitter] I've been a part of, but the first one on the right side. I was in the lineup when Randy Johnson threw a perfect game in Atlanta, and that was a helpless feeling when a guy is throwing the ball like that."
Zambrano lost his bid for a perfect game when he walked Michael Bourn with one out in the fourth. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez went over to talk to the pitcher, who had retired the first 10 in a row.
"Ramirez came to me and said, 'Don't worry about him, just pitch your game,'" Zambrano said. "I said to myself, 'You feel good, just pitch your game.'"
Not Rothschild, not Pinella, not anyone could've predicted this kind of outing after an extended layoff and shoulder problems and a 1-1 August.
"You don't expect it," Piniella said. "You want to see him throw the ball well. You want to see him get his work in. You don't expect a masterpiece like this one."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.