Inside Pitch: Is Zambrano tired?

Inside Pitch: Is Zambrano tired?

The $91.5 million question: Is Carlos Zambrano's arm OK?

While it is obvious the Cubs and Zambrano are convinced the pitcher is fine, others aren't sure the right-hander is at least a little fatigued after watching his recent starts, although his start on Sunday was limited to three innings due to rain.

"They have to be breathing a sigh of relief over that," one National League scout said. "But to me, his control has been way off the last couple of starts before that, compared to what it usually is. Maybe [the contract extension] was a distraction."

Another scout also believes Zambrano has been having trouble controlling his pitches, particularly his offspeed pitches.

"He's been falling behind in the count more," the scout said. "When a guy with his control is off that much, it makes me think his arm's tired."

The Cubs aren't worried, or else they wouldn't have signed Zambrano to a five-year, $91.5 million extension, the highest average salary awarded to a pitcher in a multiyear contract in Major League history, even before his scoreless stint Sunday.

In three starts before Sunday, Zambrano was 0-2 with a 7.13 ERA and had allowed 14 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings. He'd also walked 12, struck out 11 and given up three home runs during that span.

It was in sharp contrast to what Zambrano did in July: 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA, 34 strikeouts, 18 walks and one home run in 39 innings.

"When he struggles with his control, I think he gets upset, and when he's upset, he's more likely to make mistakes," the scout said.

Zambrano was clearly not upset after his effort against the Cardinals.

"I was throwing the ball the way I wanted," Zambrano said, "And I was feeling good with all my pitches. It was going to be a good game today."

Zambrano's new deal includes a complete no-trade clause.

"They've been working at this contract thing for a long time," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I think it'll relax him, and he'll go out there and throw the ball the way he was prior to his last two starts."

Pearls from the diamond:
-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has been having his pitchers bat eighth again, a tactic he's tried in the past, and it's been working. La Russa has been batting his pitchers eighth because he says it's like having a second leadoff hitter, which creates more RBI opportunities for the middle of the Cardinals' lineup.

-- Score another one for La Russa and St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan. After watching newly acquired Joel Pineiro's first effort (a loss to Washington), it was determined Pineiro had been tipping his pitches. Adjustments were made, and since then, the right-hander is 3-0 with a 2.37 ERA with wins over San Diego, Milwaukee and Chicago.

-- In a move he hopes will awaken the Tribe's slumbering offense, Indians manager Eric Wedge dropped Grady Sizemore from leadoff to third in the lineup and moved Kenny Lofton into the top spot. Sizemore, second in the American League in strikeouts with 126, was not in the leadoff spot last week for the first time since May 14, 2005. The Indians are 3-2 since Wedge made the switch. Wedge plans to keep Sizemore in the No. 3 spot vs. lefties. Lofton or Jason Michaels or Franklin Gutierrez are leadoff options against lefties.

-- Pete Mackanin is helping his case to remain Cincinnati's manager next season. The Reds have won eight of 13 series since Mackanin was named interim manager last month.

-- Johan Santana's franchise record 17-strikeout performance was amazing, and so is what the Twins have done in August. Not only are they last in the Major Leagues in scoring, they've lost 11 of 16 games and were thought to be out of the postseason picture by many after shedding the salary of Luis Castillo, (and the $2 million he's owed), Ramon Ortiz ($750,000) and Jeff Cirillo ($500,000). And yet, entering play Tuesday, the Twins are only 6 1/2 games out of first place in the AL Central, just one half-game behind where they were when August began.

"[Twins manager Ron] Gardenhire always finds a way to keep that team in the hunt no matter what," a rival team official said. "They just don't go away."

-- The Astros hope to have Hunter Pence back perhaps as soon as Tuesday. The rookie outfielder has been rehabbing his injured wrist at Triple-A Round Rock and has made three consecutive starts without a hitch. With Pence, Lance Berkman (hitting .472 with seven multihit games in his last 10 starts) and Carlos Lee back in the lineup, the Houston offense could begin to roll.

"They haven't been the same without Pence, getting him back with Lee, Berkman, [Mike] Lamb and [Mark] Loretta, they could be a dangerous team the rest of the way, especially if [Woody] Williams and [Roy] Oswalt keep pitching well," one scout said.

-- Don't be surprised if the Astros drop Jason Jennings from the rotation soon. The right-hander is 2-9 with a 6.45 ERA this season, including 1-5 with 10.07 ERA since the All-Star break with a Major League-leading 44 earned runs allowed since the break.

"If he continues to say he's healthy, we'll have to leave him in there probably," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "He's been saying he's healthy."

-- Since July 7, the Nationals are 17-6 against National League teams from outside the NL East. One reason for the improved play has been the performance of right-hander Tim Redding. Redding, 3-3 overall, is 2-2 with a 2.15 ERA since the break, the third-best ERA in the league during that span behind Arizona's Brandon Webb (0.84) and Atlanta's Tim Hudson (2.06).

"To me, he's been doing a much better job of making pitches and keeping his focus when things don't go right," an NL scout said. "Instead of having innings blow up on him, he's been bearing down and working his way out [of jams]."

-- The Red Sox need Kevin Youkilis to get back on track, but nothing looks imminent. The first baseman is batting just .210 since the All-Star break with 37 strikeouts in 138 at-bats.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.