History a backdrop for season opener
Zambrano no-hit Astros in last meeting; Soto's bat primed
PHOENIX -- Remember the last time Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano faced the Houston Astros? It was Sept. 14 at Miller Park, and Zambrano threw a no-hitter, the first by a Cubs pitcher since 1972. Think the Astros are eager to face Big Z again?
"It was good," Zambrano said Wednesday of his historic game. "But you have to remember Carlos Lee wasn't in the [Astros] lineup and Ivan Rodriguez also. Now [Lee] is back, and I have to be careful with him. I think he has pretty good numbers against me. That's the adjustment as a pitcher, when you see a hitter who has good numbers, you have to make the adjustment."
The Astros likely have some changes in mind as well when they face Zambrano and the Cubs on Opening Day on Monday at Minute Maid Park. Lee, by the way, has a .370 career average against the Chicago right-hander.
"Obviously, they have to do their job and I have to do my job," Zambrano said. "I have a lot of respect for them. Sometimes things happen in the game. The last time I faced them, it was pretty good for me from my side.
"It's like the St. Louis Cardinals -- I think I pitch good against them, but my last two outings against St. Louis weren't that good."
Zambrano made his final Cactus League start against Oakland on Wednesday, giving up one run on two hits over 3 1/3 innings. There was talk pregame that he would stay in the game as the designated hitter after he was done pitching, but Zambrano said two at-bats were enough.
"I'm ready to start the season healthy and ready to do my job," Zambrano said.
This will be his fifth straight Opening Day start, but he has yet to win one. Only Rick Sutcliffe and Fergie Jenkins have had five consecutive Opening Day assignments with the Cubs. However, they've both notched "W's." Rick Reuschel is the only Cubs pitcher with at least four Opening Day starts to not record a win. The Cubs were 0-4 in Reuschel's starts from 1978-1981.
"Carlos is a great pitcher, and he's our ace," Cubs catcher Geovany Soto said. "He's got great stuff. The early [Opening Day starts], I can't talk about that, but he's going out there with all his heart and all his work, and we'll make sure we get it done."
If Soto has another day like Wednesday, Zambrano will do just fine. The catcher belted a grand slam to straightaway center in the third and led off the sixth with a homer. They were his first two home runs of Spring Training. He was happy about the walk he drew in the second -- he's seeing the ball well.
"It's a work in progress," Soto said. "I feel really good, squaring balls up and having good at-bats."
Soto has tried to maintain the same work habits this spring as he did last year, which resulted in winning the National League Rookie of the Year. He's the first to point out that's old news.
"For me, it's the same," he said. "I come here and try to do the best I can. Last year is last year, it's over. They've already paid you for that."
The Astros are probably thinking the same thing. Last year is over.
"It's going to be challenging -- they've got a great club," Soto said of the Astros, "but at the same time, we have great pitching and a great lineup. I put my money on us."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.