Last month, Carlos Zambrano was preparing for a comeback attempt with the independent Long Island Ducks. Fast forward to Sunday, and the veteran right-hander is on the way to re-establishing his career in the Phillies' Minor League system.
The day after celebrating his 32nd birthday, Zambrano allowed four hits over six innings to pitch Class A Advanced Clearwater to a 7-0 blanking of Dunedin at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
The 6-foot-4 Venezuelan struck out three batters, walked two and extended his scoreless streak to 10 1/3 innings en route to his first win since Aug. 7 with the Marlins. Without the benefit of Spring Training, he's been increasing his pitch count, which crept into the 80s against the Blue Jays, and hiking his velocity into the low 90s.
"The idea is to build up the arm and innings and pitch count and be ready for the big leagues," Zambrano told MLB.com. "Today was good. If I keep throwing strikes like I did today, like I've been doing in the Minor Leagues -- obviously, the more you go up the leagues, you will find better hitters. And of course in the big leagues, you have to pitch [like you're] capable of pitching in the big leagues."
Threshers pitching coach Bob Milacki knows about this sort of comeback, having returned to the Majors with the Seattle Mariners at the age of 31 after spending the previous season in the Minors. He said the key to preparing for a big league callup in the lower levels is tapping the adrenaline needed to compete.
"You've got to find a way to get yourself motivated and prepared to compete with focus, and I think [Zambrano] knows how to do that," Milacki said. "A lot of Major League rehab guys are working on just getting innings, and the results aren't nearly as important. But he's out here competing each time out."
Zambrano is known for his fiery demeanor, but he's been nothing but a positive influence during his stint with Clearwater, Milacki said.
"He's great with the young guys," Milacki added. "He's been great the whole time with us. I think a lot of people paint a bad picture of him, but he's been outstanding, helping the young guys. He's fun to be around and his whole outlook is tremendous."
The next stop on the comeback trail is expected to come this week.
"I'm going to Double-A or Triple-A. And after that, I think I will be ready and I will wait for the call," Zambrano told MLB.com. "But I feel good. I thank God that all my pitches are working good. We'll see."
A winner of 132 games over 12 big league seasons, Zambrano retired the first eight batters on Sunday before allowing a two-out single to Peter Mooney in the third. Dunedin loaded the bases an inning later on a leadoff single by Nick Baligod and a pair of walks, but Zambrano got Shane Opitz to fly out to end the inning.
Zambrano pitched around two-out hits in each of his final two innings, exiting with a 3-0 lead.
Ryan O'Sullivan allowed a hit over two innings and Severino Gonzalez recorded the final three outs for the Threshers, who won their sixth straight.
Dunedin starter Austin Bibens-Dirkx matched Zambrano for five frames before surrendering a three-run homer in the sixth to Phillies No. 11 prospect Maikel Franco.
Kelly Dugan went 3-for-4 with an RBI and Aaron Altherr doubled, singled and scored twice for Clearwater.