Zambrano reviving career in Venezuela

Carlos Zambrano, who was hit in the head by a line drive earlier in the winter season, returned to action with the Caribes de Anzoátegui in the Venezuelan League. After three shaky starts, the embattled Chicago Cubs hurler finally came to form this week, pitching five hitless innings against the Aragua Tigres before yielding to the bullpen to complete an 11-0 shutout.

In four starts, Zambrano has a 2.55 ERA in 17.1 innings while recording 13 strikeouts. However, he has been susceptible to the long ball as he gave up six home runs in his first 12 innings of work this winter. It was precisely his leaving the breaking ball up in the zone which led to Zambrano’s problems in Chicago. He was placed on the disqualified list by the Cubs on Aug. 12 after giving up five home runs in a game against the Atlanta Braves. After being ejected for throwing behind Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Zambrano cleaned out his locker and left Wrigley Field. He has since met with new Cubs president Theo Epstein and they’re working on a way for Zambrano to get back on the Cubs’ active roster.

The Caribes, managed by Julio Franco and trailing the La Guaira Tiburones by two and a half games heading into the final stages of the regular season, have relied on Renyel Pinto to be their ace as he has compiled a 6-0 mark with a 1.27 ERA in 10 outings and striking out 64 in 60 innings. Pinto, who pitched parts of five seasons with the Florida Marlins, was last seen in the majors in 2010 and was eventually released by the St. Louis Cardinals.

In another Venezuelan league note, former New York Yankees outfielder Hensley Meulens took over as manager of the last-place Margarita Bravos after the firing of Don Baylor.

Caribbean Interleague play

A contingent of All-Stars from the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues faced off this week in the Caribbean Interleague All-Star game in which Luis Jimenez shined with two home runs in Venezuela’s 4-0 victory in Caracas.

Jimenez, a first baseman who has spent the past two seasons in the Seattle Mariners organization after playing a year with Japan’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, has anchored the Lara Cardenales’ offense, hitting .298 with nine homers and 28 RBIs and is among the Venezuelan League leaders in average, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases, on-base percentage and OPS.

Minor league veteran Dwayne Pollock, who has had a solid winter with the Zulia Aguilas, recorded the win for Venezuela while Lorenzo Barcelo was saddled with the loss.

Ayala’s milestone in Mexico

Luis Ayala, a sought-after reliever in MLB’s free agent market, reached a milestone as he became the seventh pitcher in Mexican Pacific League history to record 60 saves. Pitching for the Ciudad Obregon Yaquis, Ayala is perfect in eight save opportunities, yielding one earned run in 14.1 innings.

Ayala, who was used by the Yankees in middle relief last season, is reported to be hearing offers from six MLB teams for 2012, including the Yankees, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox.

Elsewhere in the MPL, former major league first baseman Jorge Cantu has had an immediate impact as he returned to action with the Hermosillo Naranjeros. In his first 17 games, Cantu is batting .328 with seven homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.102 OPS to help Hermosillo back into playoff contention.

Released last July 30 by the San Diego Padres after batting .194 in 57 games, Cantu signed a minor league contract with the Rockies but did not return to the majors and was granted free agency in November. At 29, Cantu has played eight seasons in the majors with Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Florida, Texas and San Diego.

Rivera to return to Carolina’s roster

The Minnesota Twins granted catcher Rene Rivera permission to return to the Carolina Gigantes of the Puerto Rico Baseball League a day after signing a new minor league deal that includes an invitation to spring training.

The Twins announced Rivera’s signing on Dec. 13 along with the signing of Sean Burroughs, who revived his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.

Rivera, who was Joe Mauer’s substitute for 46 games last season, impressed with his defense as he threw out 40 percent of would-be stealers. In five games with Carolina thus far, he has four singles and a triple in 15 at-bats.

Burroughs, meanwhile, has been active in the Venezuelan League with the Bravos de Margarita, batting .326 in 35 games.