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Cubs downplay Carlos Zambrano’s stiff neck after 9-3 win over Mets

Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano was effective from mound from plate Thursday keeping Mets under thumb but there was concern when

Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano was effective from the mound and from the plate Thursday in keeping the Mets under thumb, but there was concern when he left afterward to see a doctor about stiffness in his neck. | Jim Prisching~AP

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Updated: September 1, 2011 12:18AM

Even as the Cubs got a nine-­inning reprieve from the doom — if not the gloom of a 42-degree day — they couldn’t keep the drama from swirling around the worst pitching staff in the National League.

In fact, right-hander Carlos Zambrano couldn’t escape unscathed on a bitter-cold, gray Thursday
afternoon during which he pitched a commanding six innings and banged out three hits to help beat the New York Mets 9-3 and cinch a series win for the Cubs.

By the time reporters had assembled after the game to talk to Zambrano, he was gone — off to the team doctor’s office downtown to have a ‘‘stiff neck’’ examined.

General manager Jim Hendry characterized the issue as ‘‘very insignificant,’’ and a team spokesman said it’s something Zambrano has been working through for ‘‘a while.’’

But it’s hard to view a hangnail as insignificant these days when 60 percent of the Cubs’ starting rotation is on the disabled list — especially if the hangnail requires breaking from normal postgame routine to see a doctor. Or if the manager keeps it to himself when discussing Zambrano after the game.

‘‘He threw the ball well,’’ manager Mike Quade said. ‘‘We needed that, too.’’

The team spokesman said the $19-million-a-year pitcher simply had to rush to meet Dr. Stephen Gryzlo’s office schedule.

Three years ago, a ‘‘stiff neck’’ in May for Zambrano turned into two weeks on the DL in June for a sore shoulder.

The Cubs insist they’re not concerned about Zambrano (5-2) missing any starts, and he certainly didn’t look compromised during a game in which he struck out five, gave up just one earned run and went 3-for-3 with a double and RBI.

It was the first quality start since May 4 for Zambrano. In each of his previous two starts, he had labored in the sixth inning in what were otherwise strong outings.

‘‘It’s nothing to worry about — nothing at all that would endanger his next start or anything like that,’’ Hendry said. ‘‘Obviously, he’s
throwing the ball well. He’s swinging a bat well.’’

Meanwhile, Hendry traded Thursday for journeyman pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, who was 6-1 with a 2.59 ERA for the Atlanta Braves’ Class AAA team.

Lopez is expected to join the Cubs today and take the roster spot of reliever Justin Berg, who was told he’s going back to Class AAA Iowa after his 12-balls, no-strikes appearance Wednesday night against the Mets.

‘‘We’ve been looking for people like this,’’ Hendry said of Lopez, 35, who last pitched in the majors for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season, finishing 7-16 with a 5.00 ERA. ‘‘Obviously, with our injury situation and even some setbacks at AAA, we felt like it was as good move.’’

Hendry said the team will decide in the next few days what Lopez’s role will be. Depending how injury-replacement starter Doug Davis
(0-2, 8.31) looks in his third start today against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lopez could be considered to take that spot. More likely, the spot will be filled by Casey Coleman (2-4, 7.32 in eight starts).

‘‘We’ve given a lot of guys opportunities, and some thrived on them, and some haven’t,’’ said Hendry, who sent minor-league lefty Ryan Buchter (4-0, 3.38 at Class A and AA) to
Atlanta for Lopez. ‘‘But we need to keep getting better.’’

The Cubs get Randy Wells (forearm) off the DL on Saturday, and Matt Garza (elbow) could be back as soon as a week from today.

Meanwhile, they’ve got just two more scheduled starts this homestand for the two guys left standing from their opening rotation: Ryan Dempster, who won Tuesday, and Zambrano. And they have six games left against the Pirates and the last-place Houston Astros to try to gain a semblance of upward direction before a day off just ahead of a stretch of 38 games in 38 days leading up to the All-Star break.

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