Carlos Zambrano and what could have been for Cubs fans

Carlos Zambrano, who didn't live up to his potential in Chicago, hasn't been consistent with the Marlins either. (J. Meric/Getty Images)

I’m quite certain that Carlos Zambrano was relieved to have pitched at home against the Nationals on Monday night. His return to Chicago, after being traded to the Marlins, would have been less than a welcome one on the mound. Cubs fans rode the Zambrano roller coaster for almost a decade, and they have exactly zero to show for it.

Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. After all, Big Z did pitch a no-hitter for the Cubs back in 2008, so that must count for something, right? And he won 125 games for the Cubs over the years, and hit double digits in wins for six straight seasons in the previous decade. Surely that can’t all be for nothing?

I think that yes, it actually was all for nothing. Zambrano — more than any Cubs pitcher, since Greg Maddux left for the first time in the 1990s — had 20-win stuff. Jon Lieber made it 20 wins once, in 2001, but Zambrano could have made it there many times, if he could ever get his head on right. But this was not to be, and that’s enormously frustrating to this Cubs fan.

His meltdown in Atlanta last year was just the final act in a long series of tantrums, fistfights with his teammates, attacks on water coolers, bat-snapping over his knee, anger-management classes, bullpen demotions and a host of other, should we say, disruptions for his team. But all of these pale in comparison to his near-epic failures in the post season over the years.

Start with game two of the 2003 NLDS in Atlanta. Carlos gave back an early two-run lead and was on the hook for the loss, but he had no decision in the game.

In game one of that year’s NLCS against the Marlins, Big Z was staked to a four-run lead at Wrigley, and he gave that all back, too, by surrendering three homers in one inning. He took a no-decision in that game, but four runs should have been plenty for him to work with.

In game five of that series, he was outpitched by Josh Beckett in Miami, plain and simple. But Zambrano failed to win any of his three postseason starts that year. He contributed zero to what could have been — should have been — the year that the Cubs finally did it.

When 2007 rolled around, Carlos was inexplicably pulled from game one after six innings of work. He was locked into a pitchers duel with Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks and had thrown just 85 pitches. Zambrano didn’t remove himself from the game, so that game has to be laid at Lou Piniella’s feet. But still no postseason wins for Carlos.

And then came 2008. The Cubs had the best record in the National League and were looking good when the post-season started. And then, well, they didn’t look so good anymore. Carlos gave up a five-spot in the second inning of game two, and the Cubs never made it interesting after that. And the Cubs, with Zambrano as the ace of the staff for at least part of the time since then, haven’t been to the post season since.

Now that Carlos is safely on another team’s roster, once the Cubs ate gobs of cash (and $15 million counts as gobs, doesn’t it?) to get rid of him, it can be safely stated that Carlos, for all of his pitching talent, failed the Cubs when it mattered the most.

I certainly wish Carlos well for the rest of his career, however many years that will be after this season, but I will always look at him as a missed opportunity. It gives me no joy to say that, but to suggest anything to the contrary is overly generous to him. He had talent enough to lead the Cubs where all of us fans are dying to go. And did he do it? Did he? The answer is no, and I rest my case.

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