Is Carlos Zambrano the ace of the Cubs' staff again?
He seemed to think so Monday night, and his numbers in 10 starts since returning to the rotation from anger-management therapy - 7-0, 1.25 - seem to back him up.
``I read the other day in the paper somebody was talking about myself as the `former ace,' '' Zambrano said after Monday's 1-0 win over San Diego - an obvious reference to the most recent story I wrote about him for the Sun-Times.
``Was that me?'' a different reporter asked as Zambrano made eye contact with me for emphasis and said, ``I don't know. Somebody put it in the paper and I read it.''
``That was me,'' I said.
``Is it true?'' said the other reporter to Zambrano.
Zambrano: ``You can count and see if I'm the former ace or I'm still the ace of this team, along with all the [other] four guys in the rotation.''
Yes, anybody watching this team for the past few years can count - in fact, they can count his number of wins each of the past two seasons without running out of fingers.
You just can't count on what you're going to get from Big Z start to start, much less year to year.
And if he's already starting to keep score of who's writing nice things about him and who's not as he continues one of the best six-week runs of his career, then the Cubs should consider that a red flag in his emotional rehab.
Because it means little has changed in the way he views his place in the universe - or, rather, the rest of the universe in his world.
And if that's the case, then the Cubs need to scuttle any last notion of making him a part of their future and use this six-week hot streak to dump what they can of the two years left on his contract.
He's pitching well enough to entice more than a tire-kicker or two - his 1.07 ERA since Aug. 14 second only to Seattle's Felix Hernandez (1.06) in the majors.
Of course, he's this team's ``former ace.'' Zambrano might be the only one around this team since he signed that $91.5-million contract in the summer of 2007 to see it any other way.
No doubt he earned that contract. No doubt he was the ace of the staff as he signed it. And no doubt his last 10 starts have been something spectacular to behold.
But spectacular streaks have never been the issue or the quarrel with Z. It's the spectacular way all the good inevitably seems to come apart with him.
Not that it will this time. But no guarantee that it won't - and Monday's unsolicited reference to his press clippings doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
Ace? Since Zambrano's last 200-inning season, Ryan Dempster has had three of them. And Ted Lilly won more games while he was with the Cubs than Zambrano did. And even this season, Zambrano was 3-6 with a 5.66 ERA before starting therapy.
Ace? He pitched so poorly down the stretch in 2008, it was openly debated how far back into the playoff rotation the Cubs would slide him.
Ace? The way he mismanaged what he called a ``minor'' back spasm in August of last year - pulling himself out of a start minutes before game time in Colorado and crushing the bullpen for a week - had the biggest impact of any single event on knocking the Cubs out of contention last year.
It isn't Zambrano. In fact, the way the staff is currently built, there may not be an ace. Or at least it shouldn't matter.
And maybe more than anything that's a point that seems lost on Zambrano when he looks at the rest of the team - or, rather, doesn't.