READING, Pa. -- Children dressed as vegetables raced down the first base line as Carlos Zambrano dusted off the pitching rubber before the second inning, and the three-time All-Star had his postgame press conference in the corner of a team store.
For the 12-year Major League veteran, quirks like that are just part of the road back to the big leagues. A road Zambrano hopes leads him to Philadelphia before too long.
Zambrano made a strong start for Double-A Reading on Saturday after throwing two extended spring training games and starting twice for Class A Clearwater since the Phillies signed him to a Minor League contract on May 15. His final line: six innings, one run, three hits, seven strikeouts, three walks on 97 pitches (57 strikes).
"This is my fifth outing, and I'm ready," Zambrano said, dripping with sweat in front of a hat rack after his outing. "I'm ready to help the team and do whatever they want."
Zambrano said he was unsure of what was the next step for him after the start and that it was all up to the Phillies management. Granted, it has come against Minor League hitters, but the 32-year-old Venezuelan has been good in his outings at Clearwater and Reading.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander did not allow a run in two starts in Class A, and the only run he surrendered Saturday came on a curveball Zambrano left up to Harrisburg's Jimmy Van Ostrand, who hit a solo homer.
"I mean my sinker was good, I made one mistake on a curveball, I did pay for it with the home run," Zambrano said. "I was throwing in Single-A, this league is tougher, better hitters, but I think I did pretty good, I think I did OK. Once the sinker is good, spilt-finger, slider, I'm ready to pitch in the big leagues."
Known for a fiery personality and dislike of water coolers, "Big Z" finished in the top five of the National League Cy Young voting twice during his long tenure with the Cubs.
Zambrano has a 3.66 career ERA in the Majors, but struggled last season when he signed with the Marlins. He was shifted to the bullpen in the middle of the season after struggling in a starting role and finished the 2012 campaign with a 4.49 ERA, 95 strikeouts and 75 walks.
After leaving the Marlins, Zambrano found himself without a team, and ended up spending the spring with his family in Venezuela. He noted it was nice to be around loved ones, and said he also worked with his trainer to trim a few pounds -- Big Z is not as quite as big as he used to be. But he was still pleased when the Phillies reached out to him three and a half weeks ago.
"I was just waiting for the opportunity to get back in the big leagues, and thank god the Phillies gave me the opportunity," Zambrano said. "I'm here for them. I'm here to pitch for them. I'm here to be one of the pieces. Along with the other 25 guys on the roster, be one little piece and help the team."
The 97 pitches Zambrano threw Saturday were the most of any outing he's had since July 21, 2012, and he said he did not think he had a pitch limit. He also got a chance to show off his other tools.
Zambrano had a line drive come back at him on the first play of the game, and he was able to deflect the ball up in the air and still make the catch. He also got a chance to swing the bat, and though he is one of the greatest hitting pitchers of the last decade (24 career Major League homers, three Silver Slugger awards), he went 0-for-2 with a strikeout.
The veteran said he signed with the team with the intention to be a starter, and that's the role he would prefer to have if he's called up to the Majors. Reading manager Dusty Wathan said Zambrano would still be with the Double-A team Sunday, but did not know if he would make another start at the level.
Zambrano waited all spring to get the call from the Phillies, now he is waiting on another one.
"It's all up to them," Zambrano said.
Stephen Pianovich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.