Piniella: Zambrano could provide boost

PITTSBURGH -- Carlos Zambrano returns to the Cubs rotation on Wednesday after spending the last five weeks in the bullpen.

Manager Lou Piniella expects Zambrano, who turned 29 on Tuesday, to be fired up for his first start since the third week of April.

"Looking forward to seeing him," Piniella said. "One of the keys for us going forward is Carlos pitching well out of the rotation. He could give us a big boost there. Let's hope he can run off a nice little streak for us."

Zambrano was 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA as a starter before heading to the bullpen when Ted Lilly returned to the rotation.

"His conditioning has been kept up," said pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "We didn't put him in the bullpen because he wasn't pitching well. We put him in the bullpen because we needed a right-hander in the eighth inning. "

Although Zambrano wasn't really gung-ho about his time in the bullpen, Rothschild feels it was beneficial to the team.

"He helped us win some games, "Rothschild said. "If you look at the games he came into, it was a help for us. "

Zambrano's starting numbers have dropped significantly over the last two years. Since August 3, 2008, the Cubs' $91-million pitcher has a record of 12-11 with a 4.77 ERA while averaging just 5 2/3 innings per start.

Those numbers cover Zambrano's last 41 starts and include the no-hitter he threw against Houston at Miller Park in September 2008.

These days, Zambrano's velocity usually measures between 90-91 mph. That's a big difference compared to what he used to peak out at, hitting 94-95 mph regularly during his first six years as a starter.

"Over the past few years, you look at it and are hopeful [the velocity] comes back," Rothschild said. "The velocity picked up over the first and second innings last year and early this year. A lot of good starters do that. But it was noticeable with him."

Against the Pirates, Zambrano is 11-8 with a 4.16 ERA, covering 29 career games (25 starts).

Bruce Levine covers baseball for ESPN 1000 and ESPNChicago.com