Zambrano Game 2's central figure

Zambrano Game 2's central figure

CHICAGO -- It is not a stretch to say that Big Z could be the Big X Factor in this Division Series.

With the Chicago Cubs' 7-2 loss in the opener of a National League Division Series, the focus shifts more than ever to their Game 2 starter. Which Carlos Zambrano do the Cubs get on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers? Will it be the Carlos Zambrano who threw a no-hitter against the Houston Astros on Sept. 14? Or will it be the Carlos Zambrano who, in his next two starts after that epic performance, gave up 13 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings?

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"Listen, we need Zambrano to go out there and pitch a good ballgame for us and get us to our short relief," manager Lou Piniella said.

At this point, a superior performance from Zambrano is not simply desirable. It is mandatory. The Cubs are already in some difficulty. Teams that won Game 1 of an NL Division Series have gone on to be 23-3 in those series. The only NL team that lost its first game at home and won its Division Series was the 1999 Atlanta Braves, who lost their opener to Houston.

NLDS History
Teams that have taken 1-0 leads have won 23 of 26 Division Series in the Wild Card era. Only the 1999 Braves lost Game 1 at home and won the series.
Won Game 1: 23-3
Won Game 1 on road: 12-1
Won Game 1 at home: 11-2

And if a team loses the first two games of an NL Division Series? The record does not equivocate. Those teams are 0-16. So Big Z has to be extremely big in this one.

Zambrano was given 12 days' rest in early September, due to a bout of rotator cuff tendinitis. Apart from the no-hitter, his work in the season's second half did not appear to be that of an ace. He was 1-1 in August with a 7.43 earned run average. He was 1-1 in September with a 7.08 ERA. However, the one September victory was the no-hitter, a truly dominant performance in which Zambrano allowed only two balls to be hit out of the infield. So, while his overall track record was discouraging, he still had the ability to achieve greatness.

GAME 2: JUST THE FACTS
Wrigley Field, 8:30 p.m. CT
Dodgers starter: RHP Chad Billingsley
2008: 16-10, 3.14 ERA
2008 on road: 6-6, 3.33 ERA
2008 vs. Cubs: 0-1, 4.91 ERA
Career vs. Cubs: 1-1, 3.60 ERA
Career postseason: 0-0, 0.00 (two relief appearances)
Cubs starter: RHP Carlos Zambrano
2008: 14-6, 3.91 ERA
2008 at home: 7-2, 3.77 ERA
2008 vs. Dodgers: 0-1, 4.91 ERA
Career vs. Dodgers: 2-3, 3.75 ERA
Career postseason: 0-1, 4.37 ERA (four starts)
Dodgers lead series, 1-0. The team that has won Game 1 of an NLDS is 23-3 in those series.
Game 1: Dodgers 7, Cubs 2
Did You Know? The Dodgers' win in Game 1 gave them the all-time head-to-head series lead over the Cubs 1,013-1,012.

Zambrano brushed off a question regarding his last two starts on Wednesday, saying: "It's in the past. This is a new age, new stage for the Cubs, new ballgame, new team."

And he said he was perfectly healthy. But the questions lingered, after Zambrano declined to pitch two tuneup innings in the regular-season finale on Sunday. Zambrano said that because he throws a lot of pitches to get ready for any performance, he thought that appearance would take away from his readiness to pitch in Game 2.

"Pitching Sunday and then pitching Thursday, it would be three days' rest," he said. "We don't need that. I think I need myself, and this ballclub needs me, to be fresh."

Zambrano is at least nominally the ace of the Cubs' rotation, but the ace's spot as Game 1 starter in this series was taken by Ryan Dempster. This was a tribute to Dempster's 14-3 record at Wrigley Field this year, but it also indicated that Piniella did not see his rotation in absolute terms. Dempster didn't live up to the top spot, walking seven in 4 2/3 innings, then giving up a grand slam to James Loney.

The fact that he did not get to start in the opener was also not an issue for him, Zambrano indicated.

"This is the playoffs, man," Zambrano said. "We have four quality starters and like Lou told me, you know, each of the starting pitchers that we have here can start the first game. He decided to go with Dempster and I agreed with him. I don't have any problem with that."

Derek Lowe stifled the Cubs' offense in Game 1, and now the Dodgers will send out Chad Billingsley, just 24, but a 16-game winner for Los Angeles this season. Even more to the Dodgers' liking, after a difficult April, Billingsley went 15-6 over the final five months of the season. So it is distinctly possible that this will be another night in which the Cubs cannot simply slug their way to victory.

No, it appears that Carlos Zambrano has become the central character in the Cubs postseason drama. And he will not have the luxury of the cushion that a Game 1 Cubs victory would have provided. History says that if Zambrano loses this start, the Cubs lose this series.

Zambrano was asked on Wednesday about the pressure of the 100 years without a championship and he responded, wisely, that this was not something upon which the Cubs should focus.

"If we think about that and we keep that in our mind, it would be too much pressure for us," Zambrano said. "We don't think about that. We just think that we have a good team and we can win it all."

For the Cubs to win it all, or to win anything, at this point, Carlos Zambrano is going to have to be the real Big Z on Thursday night.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.