Carlos Zambrano yells to himself in the dugout after a confrontation with Derrek Lee on June 25, 2010. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: May 31, 2011 4:46AM
MESA, Ariz. — Maybe all that anger-management counseling finally accomplished what the Cubs failed for years to achieve with their most expensive and talented pitcher.
Nobody can know for sure until Carlos Zambrano gets through a full season without a trademark outburst or meltdown, but the Cubs are betting another division race on it. And Zambrano at least seems to be buying into what he says he learned from a program he continued beyond last season.
‘‘It’s all done; I’m cured,’’ he said Tuesday, smiling and drawing laughs from assembled skeptics. ‘‘I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.’’
The smiles and laughs continued, but the message was serious, Zambrano said.
‘‘It did work,’’ he said. ‘‘Believe me, that was an experience that I can take through the years.’’
If he can start by taking it through this one, he and the Cubs will consider it a success. Consider that even as he was in the midst of the counseling — and an 8-0 finish to his season — a glimpse of the old Zambrano came out in his final start when he showed up teammate Bobby Scales after a pair of fielding miscues.
‘‘My problem is not about being a good person,’’ he said. ‘‘The problem that I have to solve is when I get upset on the field. I think my problem is after I cross the [white] lines and whether somebody makes an error or if I make an error; that’s my problem. I have to focus on that this year. But off the field, I consider myself a nice guy.’’
That’s probably as close as Zambrano has come to addressing that issue publicly — at least during the first three disappointing years of his five-year, $91.5 million contract.
And if it leads to a productive season without the wild performance swings, well, the Cubs’ success in the National League Central largely could hinge on it. Because how Zambrano goes figures to have a disproportionate say in how the team goes.
So far, the signs point upward. Zambrano, who’s still more than three months shy of his 30th birthday as he enters his 10th season, made a point last week to sidestep any guarantees about staying out of trouble this season.
And when manager Mike Quade told Zambrano on Monday that his streak of six consecutive Opening Day starts would end because Ryan Dempster was getting the call this time, he congratulated Dempster.
‘‘I’ve had a chance to be the guy on Opening Day for six years in a row, and now it’s his turn; I’m happy for him,’’ Zambrano said. ‘‘Nothing lasts forever, you know. I wanted to be an Opening Day starter for all my years I’ll be with the Cubs. It’s just Dempster for Opening Day [now], and that’s OK with me. He’s been pitching good — much better than I the last two years — and he deserves it.’’
Said Quade of Zambrano’s reaction: ‘‘It’s a pretty good sign of maturity, and it’s a sign of a guy that is a good teammate.’’
Good luck finding the last time those words were used to describe Zambrano.
‘‘Maybe . . . I can be a pitching coach or whatever 20 years from now,’’ Zambrano said. ‘‘I can speak to the young kids about what I went through or what happened in my career, things that I have experienced.’’
Pitching coach? Zambrano?
‘‘I don’t know,’’ he said. ‘‘I just said that.’’