Richard Justice

Marlins' gamble on Big Z is paying off

Justice: Marlins' gamble on Big Z is paying off

Marlins' gamble on Big Z is paying off
HOUSTON -- To the outside world, Miami's Carlos Zambrano is the combustible star seemingly bent on destroying his own career.

"The outside view of him is nothing like he really is," Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton said.

How so?

"He's quiet," Stanton said. "He's a great guy."

In another part of the visitor's clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, there's a similar view.

"Since he walked in here, he has been nothing but awesome, [in] every way you can think of," catcher John Buck said. "He's kind of a favorite in this clubhouse."

Yes, Zambrano is still a bundle of nerves and energy on the mound. That's probably never going to change.

"He's a different human being on the field," Stanton said. "He gets real antsy. He's very emotional and plays the game hard. In the past it got a little out of hand."

Manager Ozzie Guillen is not afraid of that Zambrano. In fact, he embraces him.

"I like that when he's on the field," Guillen said. "I don't want Carlos to be nice. I want Carlos to be tough and have some passion for the game. There's a difference between being crazy and being passionate for the game."

From the beginning of the experiment that brought Zambrano to the Marlins, Guillen was confident that he would create an environment that would allow his pitcher to flourish.

"I don't care if you get mad," Guillen said. "I don't care if you throw stuff. I don't care if you go crazy out there. But you have to respect your teammates, and you have to respect your club. He has gotten along with the players very well. The reason I took that chance with Carlos is [because] I know him very well. I know him off the field."

If you thought the Carlos Zambrano who was once one of the National League's best pitchers was gone forever, guess again.

"It was time for Carlos to move on out of Chicago," Guillen said. "It was good for him to start over with another team. It was good for them, too. They were tired of Carlos' act. Sometimes change helps people."

Zambrano made his best start in three years on Monday night, a three-hit shutout of the Astros, helping the Marlins extend their winning streak to seven games with a 4-0 victory.

Zambrano has been terrific almost from the beginning. He has allowed more than three runs just once and given up one run or none four times. He lowered his ERA to a dazzling 1.98.

He has also been the victim of a Marlins slump that extended to six guys at once, and also to a bullpen that blew three of his saves. But in the bigger picture, the Marlins are getting tremendous pitching from four of their five starters and have morphed into the team a lot of people thought it would be.

Zambrano (1-2) needed just 110 pitches to throw his first complete game since 2009, and thanks to four double plays, he faced just 29 hitters, two over the minimum. The Astros didn't get a single runner into scoring position.

"His ball moves all over the place," Buck said. "When he controls his sinker and cutter, that opens a lot of options for me. As soon as I felt like they were looking for that split, he was able to command that two-seamer on the corners late in the counts."

Afterward, Zambrano spoke movingly of how his final season with the Cubs affected his life and how he's fundamentally different as a man.

Zambrano was sent home in mid-August after cleaning out his locker in the wake of a bad game, and rather than have him back, the Cubs are paying approximately $16.5 million of his $19 million salary to have him pitch someplace else. Zambrano said that he had a religious epiphany during a trip home to Venezuela.

"It changed my life," he said. "I don't know if people believe that. I grew up going to church. For some reason, three or four years ago, I stopped going to church and reading the Bible. Things got out of control. God saved my life."

Of all the high-profile moves the Marlins made in the offseason, from hiring Guillen to signing Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle and Heath Bell, it was the willingness to take a chance on Zambrano that was the most intriguing.

If the Marlins could somehow keep Zambrano's emotions under control, there was a chance they'd get a guy who'd transform a really good rotation into a potentially great one. Even with ace Josh Johnson struggling, that rotation has been dominant on this 7-0 trip.

"The ball is bouncing our way," Guillen said. "All these games could have gone either way. Everything, it seems like, is going our way. It's all about pitching."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.