Chicago Cubs vs Los Angeles Dodgers
Chicago Cubs (97-64); First Place, National League Central vs Los Angeles Dodgers (84-77); First Place, National League West
- Keys for the Cubs:
The Cubs won the NL Central going away and rode a powerful and patient lineup, very good starting pitching and an excellent bullpen (specifically in the late innings) to the best record in the National League. Ryan Dempster, in his first season back as a starter after four in the bullpen was the Cubs most consistent and durable starter during the regular season, winning 17 games. Tabbed as the starter for game one of the NLDS, he must continue the level of work that he achieved during the season.
Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden both sustained arm injuries in September and returned to pitch late in the month. Harden’s velocity appeared noticably short and Zambrano was up-and-down in his temperament and performance; he was brilliant in no-hitting the Astros and terrible in his next start against the Cardinals, throwing a tantrum when manager Lou Piniella came out to remove him. Ted Lilly also won 17 games and overcomes slightly above average stuff with guts and a bulldog demeanor.
Kerry Wood adjusted well to the switch to closer and, after a slow start, logged 34 saves and showed the high-90s fastball and wicked overhand curve that made him a sensation ten years ago. The playoffs are a different situation, especially for a closer. Wood must maintain his composure and not overthrow because that will flatten out his pitches. His stuff is there; the question is how he’ll fare mentally. Carlos Marmol is a strikeout machine similar to what Mariano Rivera was as a set-up man in the Yankees first championship of this era in 1996. Jeff Samardzija also throws very hard and has bouts of wildness. Neal Cotts is the extremely shaky lefty out of the Cubs bullpen unless they keep Sean Marshall on the roster as well, which I think they might do.
Mark DeRosa was the all-around best player for the Cubs all season long and is the type of under-the-radar player who always comes up big in the playoffs because the opposition’s attention is generally directed towards the other bashers. Aramis Ramirez always seems to hit big homers; Derrek Lee is a solid pro who won’t let the pressure of the playoffs bother him; and Geovany Soto has handled everything inherent with catching for a demanding manager in Piniella, hitting with power and handling the pitching staff. Jim Edmonds was rejuvenated after he joined the Cubs and has always been a big time playoff performer.
- Keys for the Dodgers:
Derek Lowe is a proven horse in the playoffs who doesn’t give up many homers and they need him to set the tone in the first game of the series and send a message to the Cubs that the Dodgers came to win. Chad Billingsley is a young pitcher who came into his own with 16 wins and needs to keep calm as he starts a playoff game on enemy ground in game two at Wrigley Field. Hiroki Kuroda has been up and down this season, but when he’s been up, he’s been almost unhittable; when he’s down, he’s awful. If he’s not on his game, he’ll be on a short leash from manager Joe Torre.
The Dodgers lineup was picked up and carried into the playoffs by Manny Ramirez. For two months, Manny was right up there with any of the greatest hitters in baseball history you could name as he forced his name into realistic NL MVP contention batting .396, with 17 homers and 53 RBI in 53 games. Another underrated, but imperative pick-up for the Dodgers was veteran Casey Blake, who’s a professional hitter and has had post-season experience, carrying himself as the ultimate professional. Other than Manny, the Dodgers had a very down year in the power department; they’re going to need Blake, James Loney, Russell Martin and Andre Ethier to make the Cubs pay when they pitch around Manny.
Torre is going to go back to the days of 1996 when he managed the games as if it were little league and limited to six or seven innings. Back then, Torre played for a lead early and turned the ball over to Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland to close it out. Now he can do something similar with Jonathan Broxton and his 99-mph fastball and the underrated Takashi Saito.
- What will happen:
If the Cubs are going to win, they’re going to have to get good pitching from top-to-bottom. The only one on the entire staff I wouldn’t worry about if I were Piniella is Marmol. With everyone else, there’s a reason to be concerned. Dempster will pitch well, but not as well as he did during the season and if he and Lowe get into a pitcher’s duel, Lowe is going to win. Lowe has performed in situations such as this before, doesn’t give up many homers and is reliable to deliver for his team. Dempster is a question mark.
Zambrano is an emotional volcano always ready to explode. If I were the Dodgers, I would ride him hard from the bench, bunt on him, foul off a bunch of pitches, steal bases and get him flustered until the smoke coming out of his nose is clearly visible and get him off his game. Zambrano gives up his share of homers and can get wild, so if the gravity of the situation starts to get to him, he could very easily fall apart. Harden is always a candidate to get hurt and remove himself from a game in the first few innings and his velocity was down noticably after he was sidelined with shoulder issues. Lilly is a bad matchup for the Dodgers because Manny has murdered him in his career.
If the series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Cubs are going to pin their hopes on Wood. There will be one game in this series that Wood will be called upon to retire Manny in the late innings and Wood’s adrenaline will be off the charts. That will be a problem because if Wood comes in throwing too hard, his pitches are going to straighten out and he won’t be able to control his curveball; unless he’s able to bridle himself, one of his 98-mph fastballs is going to get too much of the fat part of the plate and Manny’s going to hit the ball to Mars. I have more faith in the Dodgers bullpen than I do the Cubs.
The Cubs are so righty-centric that the absence of Hong-Chih Kuo for the first round won’t hurt the Dodgers and the only lefties that the Cubs have that could be considered any threats at all is the disappointing Kosuke Fukodome and veteran Jim Edmonds. Dodgers lefty specialist Joe Beimel should be able to handle them without a problem. Alfonso Soriano’s defense in left field is horrendous and will cost the Cubs along the way. He also tends to be streaky in his hitting; if he’s hot, he can carry the club and if not he’s a strikeout and gaffe-machine.
Piniella and Torre have managed against each other in the playoffs twice while with the Mariners and Yankees respectively; both times, the Mariners were favored to beat the Yankees in the ALCS; both times the Mariners lost in a pretty lopsided fashion. Piniella’s Cubs are favored to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and many believe that they’re going to win it for the first time in 100 years; that’s a lot of history to overcome. Good things seem to follow Torre and it would be appropriate after the way he was unceremoniously and unfairly dispatched from the Yankees if a year later the Yankees didn’t even make the playoffs and they have to watch as Torre guides an unheralded and flawed Dodgers team (greatly assisted by another arch-enemy from the past in Manny Ramirez) past the favored Cubs and into the Championship Series, and that’s what’s going to happen.
Prediction: DODGERS IN FOUR.