Despite shaky first start, Big Z satisfied

Despite shaky first start, Big Z satisfied

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Carlos Zambrano may be wearing a different uniform than last year, but the Marlins' new right-hander is maintaining a few rituals from his days with the Cubs.

Before Thursday's Grapefruit League start against the Mets at Digital Domain Park, Zambrano tapped fists with every player in the Miami dugout. It's his way of getting pumped up and uniting all of his teammates.

"I've always done that, since I was a rookie," Zambrano said. "Every time I go to pitch, I give [a fist bump] to everyone on the team. If somebody is inside [the clubhouse], I'll come inside. We are all part of this ballclub. If pitchers aren't pitching that day, they are out there, rooting [for] us, supporting us. That's the most important thing."

Playing in Miami is a new beginning for Zambrano, who is getting a fresh start after a tumultuous tenure in Chicago.

When Zambrano completed his warmup pitches on Thursday, he dropped to one knee behind the mound and said a prayer.

Every time a pitch is thrown, there is risk. Zambrano witnessed that firsthand in November, while pitching winter ball in Venezuela. He was struck on the right side of his chin by a comeback liner.

The hot smash left Zambrano with 16 stitches, a scar and a reminder to not take anything for granted.

"I always pray to God to protect me," Zambrano said. "He's my protection. I've been in the big leagues for 11 years. Last year, I got hit on my chin [and received] 16 stitches."

As for his first Grapefruit League outing, it wasn't the cleanest of performances. In 1 1/3 innings, he struck out four batters, but he gave up three runs on three hits with three walks in the Marlins' 5-4 win.

More than the result, Zambrano is measuring his outing on how he felt; physically, he's fine. A big number to watch is his radar gun reading, since his velocity was known to dip last year.

But Big Z threw 91-93 mph and maxed out at 94 mph, leading Mets left fielder Jason Bay to tell Zambrano, "It's too early in Spring Training to throw that hard."

"Just an outing to build up my arm," Zambrano said after throwing 51 pitches. "As Spring Training goes, it will be much better. I gave up three runs, but it doesn't matter. It just matters that I need to work on my arm, my strength and my conditioning, too, to be ready for the season."

The outing started out in promising fashion for the veteran, who got swinging strikeouts on the first two batters. From there, Zambrano struggled finding the plate. He issued back-to-back walks to Bay (four pitches) and Ike Davis, who battled back from an 0-2 count.

Zambrano was a strike away from getting out of the jam, but on a 2-2 pitch, Lucas May ripped a two-run double to left-center field. Mike Baxter then slapped an RBI single to center.

The long, taxing inning ended when Zambrano caught Adam Loewen looking on a 3-2 fastball for his third strikeout.

Most of the Marlins' starters have been limited to 45 or fewer pitches in their first outings. But because Zambrano had played winter ball, he was given 50-55 pitches.

Leading off the second inning, Ronny Cedeno walked and Omar Quintanilla singled, putting Zambrano again in a bind. The right-hander's day ended after he struck out Kirk Nieuwenhuis looking. Zambrano exited with two on and one out. Chad Gaudin worked out of the jam, getting Justin Turner to line into a double play.

Rather than being concerned about how sharp Zambrano was, Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was pleased with how he threw.

"[Zambrano was] a little rusty," Guillen said. "I loved the way the ball was coming out of his hands. He walked a couple of guys and was a little anxious. He told me the walks killed him. I told him, 'I don't worry about that.' I worry about how the ball comes out of his hand. He threw the ball pretty good."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.