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05/29/09 1:30 AM ET

Slow start has Cubs tightly wound

Expected to run away with division, Chicago showing cracks

CHICAGO -- For the moment at least, "Cubbie swagger" seems to have been replaced by "Cubbie anger."

At least it's an active response. You cannot accuse the Cubs of lacking emotion, not when two pitchers assault the dugout Gatorade machine on two separate days this week, not when two pitchers have emotionally charged confrontations with umpires in the same period.

The Cubs have had more than their share of frustrating developments this season. Injuries to key personnel have been damaging. Offensive performances so far under expectations as to be unrecognizable have been far too prevalent.

Taking out some frustrations on the Gatorade machine probably does not reflect an underlying distaste for the selections -- lemon-lime, fruit punch and water. The Cubs were ticked off specifically by umpiring decisions. But they could also be perturbed by the direction of the season. Either way, the Cubs may be guilty of Gatorade dispenser abuse, but they cannot be charged with lack of emotional involvement.

The most recent incident featuring an explosion of Cubs temper occurred Wednesday in a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano, not a complete stranger to controversy, covered the plate on an extremely close tag play. The call went against him. He and home-plate umpire Mark Carlson argued. Contact was allegedly made. After Carlson ejected Zambrano, the pitcher responded by signaling that the umpire should also have been ejected. Zambrano then threw the baseball into deep left-center, a reasonably-impressive toss.

After that, Zambrano went after the Gatorade machine with a bat. On Thursday, Major League Baseball suspended Zambrano for six games for "his inappropriate and violent actions on the field and in the dugout" in the Wednesday incident.

Hang on just one second. I believe that reasonable people could agree on "inappropriate." But "violent?" There was no real violence done here, unless you believe that violence can be committed upon an inanimate object, such as a Gatorade dispenser. Zambrano is not appealing the suspension but perhaps he could appeal the wording of the suspension and get the "violent" removed from his record.

All of the appropriate Cubs, including Zambrano, agreed on Thursday that he had gone too far in this episode. He was all right vehemently debating the play at the plate, but after that, he was asking for trouble.

"I have no problem with the emotions showed at the plate," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "Obviously, you've got to control yourself better than he did afterward. ... Carlos has a tough time stemming the tide, so to speak."

"I think the ruling was fair, yes, I really do," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella. "And Carlos does, too. He just took it too far. I think he realizes that. We had a nice talk in my office with Carlos and (pitching coach) Larry Rothschild, and told him basically that we weren't happy about the situation. We're not going to condone it. There's nothing wrong with being upset, but you've got to learn to walk away at the right time."

"He feels bad after it happens, which is really the right approach, but you've got to learn to take it to a certain level and then just walk away from it. ... I love the kid to death, but I'll tell you, he's got a quick fuse."

Zambrano himself did not dispute the suspension. "When you make a mistake, when you do something wrong, I don't have a problem with that," Zambrano said of the suspension. "You do something that is out of the normal, something that is not appropriate; you have to pay for it."

Zambrano, of course, is not a first-timer when it comes to public displays of temper. When he was asked about some of that history Thursday, particularly his 2007 fight with former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, Zambrano briefly took offense. His position was that in the Barrett incident, he was physically threatened and personally insulted and that episode had nothing to do with this one.

He's correct; the two incidents are completely different. But when there are enough controversial episodes in your past, people tend to add them up without regard to tone and texture.

But perhaps anger is not a completely inappropriate reaction to a Cubs season that so far has been kind of infuriating. The Cubs, with a lineup that should be one of baseball's best, ranks 10th in the National League in runs scored, 10th in slugging percentage, 12th in on-base percentage, 15th in doubles. Yes, they miss the run production of Aramis Ramirez, anybody would. But the team doesn't have to fold while he is out.

The Cubs, with an agonizing 2-1 loss to the Dodgers on Thursday night, have lost nine of their past 11 games. They are now at .500. It is too early in the season for this to be considered anything like a crisis. But on the flip side, this was a club that won an NL-best 97 games last season. It did not regress over the offseason. Expectations for another NL Central title were completely reasonable. The first 46 games of the 2009 season have not much resembled those expectations.

Ejections, suspensions and one-sided bouts against a Gatorade machine probably do not represent the best route back to the top of the NL Central for the Cubs. But they beat the alternatives, which would include complacency, passivity and general demoralization. If the Cubs could hit opponents' pitching as well as the Gatorade machine, life would be much better.

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