Welcome to the first of three posts I promise to deliver leading up to the month we've all been waiting for: October.
As you know by now unless you've blocked out all connections to the world of sports, the Cubs will be facing another historical team in the Los Angeles Dodgers come Wednesday night. This is of course due to Bob Howry giving Ryan Braun a lollipop yesterday to let the Brewers take the wild card and force the Cubs to play a division champion in the first round.
Good thing LA plays more like a wild card team. Bad thing Bob Howry is on the playoff roster. I know a bunch of people who will likely snipe Howry if he comes within 15 feet of the mound in the playoffs.
So that brings me to my first major discussion/analysis of the NLDS: Pitching. I start with pitching because I believe pitching, emphasis on starting pitching, will be the most important factor for the Cubs to move on to Round 2.
Let's take a look at the starting pitching for the first three games. The most important thing to note is that these match-ups are dominated by right-handers. This will play more a factor in the hitting analysis, but it needs mentioning.
Ryan Dempster vs. Derek Lowe
Lowe is coming off a fantastic final stretch where his ERA has been 0.59. This is about his only advantage on Dempster overall. The biggest stat for Dempster that jumps out is his 14-3 record at home. With that in mind, the Cubs know they want to lock up that first game badly. Not that they wouldn't otherwise, but at home with Dempster is supposed to be one of their greatest strengths. Lowe has been impressive against the Cubs, however, 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in 2 starts, going 7 innings in both games. Dempster's numbers are nearly identical against LA with the difference being merely a 2.62 ERA and in 2 fewer innings.
With those factors in consideration, this should very much be a pitchers duel, which means it will be key for both teams to come up with clutch hits and perhaps in the later innings. The Carlos Marmol-Kerry Wood combo for the Cubs and the Jonathan Broxton-Takashi Saito combination for LA will be tested rather quickly. The Cubs have had a measure of success against Saito, but he's not the guaranteed closer as he was earlier in the season. Marmol and Wood have been pretty lights out against the Dodgers. The question, of course, will be how they handle the pressure--especially Marmol--this time around.
Carlos Zambrano vs. Chad Billingsley
As I mentioned earlier, Zambrano went from being the ace to the wild card of the Cubs rotation and his experience against the Dodgers this season (one performance dominant, another where he threw over water coolers) doesn't point to the contrary. His playoff experience has not proven to support him either. The question easily remains: which side of Big Z will show up Thursday night? A performance anywhere close to the no-no would instill fear in the hearts of all playoff contenders.
Billingsley is 3-0 in September and has pretty consistently stayed near his 3.14 ERA all season. In two starts against the Cubs he went 0-1 with a 4.91, but he received a notable lack of run support. In general, it's important to note that although the Cubs were 5-2 against the Dodgers, all games were won by small margins and very low-scoring. Billingsley is 24, so his lack of experience is also a question mark.
In general, this could be yet another low-scoring duel if Zambrano finds his A-game. Clutch hits will again be a factor.
Rich Harden vs. Hiroki Kuroda
Kuroda pitched a complete game shut out in one outing against the Cubs and barely lost his other one when the Cubs were pulling off all those late-inning heroics earlier this season. His ERA is .59 vs. the Cubs and he's also undefeated like his fellow starters in September, 2-0 in 5 starts. He struggles more against lefties, so that's something to keep in mind as well.
Harden has yet to face the Dodgers this season, but he's been pretty consistent in his time on the North Side. You're pretty much guaranteed to get 5 innings with a high number of strikeouts and walks. Harden hasn't lost a decision since July, the month he was acquired in. He's the perfect pitcher to take the mound with the Cubs in a sweep situation should they be fortunate to get that far. He'll likely be coupled with Jason Marquis or Sean Marshall as 5 innings isn't exactly enough for the playoffs.
The big picture is that this series seems to be poised to be similar to the season series in terms of pitching. None of the starting three for either team are weak enough to merit an edge for the other team. In general, the Cubs have to get the edge because of the strong winning records of their pitchers all season long that blows away the average records of the pitchers on the Dodgers' staff.
What makes this even more interesting is the prospect of a Ted Lilly vs. Greg Maddux matchup in Game 4. In general, the Cubs' depth makes them a favorite if the series goes that far.
Not only does the pitching seem critical for the Cubs because they are matched reasonably well by the Dodgers, but also not so coincidentally based on what happened a year ago in Arizona. The Cubs' starting pitching completely deflated and wasn't half of what it was in the regular season. If this year's pitching staff can keep it close, one of the Cubs "roster of MVPs" according to Lou, will get the big hit. For the Dodgers, it's the heart of the lineup that they have to depend on. For a breakdown of that, you'll have to stay tuned.