The set up for a regular season revenge story could have been a little better. I don't think anyone predicted that by the time the Los Angeles Dodgers returned to Wrigley Field at the end of May that they'd be greeted by a Cubs team clinging just above .500 and pretty locked into 4th place in its division.
Well, this is the Cubs' chance to prove it was just a slump, that they will be in the thick of the division race in the near future and that, well, they can beat the Dodgers at least once.
I personally have always viewed the regular season series against teams that handed us rough defeats in the playoffs the year before as revenge situations, especially when they're not division rivals that you see 18 or so times a season. The Marlins in 2004, the D'backs last season and now the Dodgers. For what it's worth, the Cubs have been pretty good at home in those situations. Last May, they swept the D'backs and in 2004, they split a four-game home set with Florida. Heck, even in May of '99 the Cubs took a three-game series against the Braves after getting swept in the NLDS in 1998.
The Dodgers, whose 33 wins so far are an MLB best by at least 5 games over any other team, probably more accurately represent their talent this time than they did back in October. This is the record of the team the Cubs saw back then, not the deceptive "barely won the NL West" Dodgers team everyone thought they were getting, and it's doubly true with Manny Ramirez suspended and no decline in production.
Amusingly, the Cubs too are without their greatest offensive weapon from the NLDS last season: Mark DeRosa. Oh well, no need to bring that argument up again.
Four games in Chicago (10/15 Dodger losses have been on the road) against a team this good has statement written all over it. Fans of baseball as a whole will have their eyes turned there and the media will be there with their clips of Zambrano bashing the Gatorade machine to "symbolize" the Cubs frustrations over dealing with umpires and their recent 8-game losing streak (Even worse when compared with last year's similar footage of Z going crazy in LA last June). It will be bad watching that national broadcast Saturday Cub fans, so brace yourselves (fortunately I have tickets). Now on the rebound with what was a successful warm-up scoring 19 runs against Pittsburgh, the Cubs are in a spot where they have nothing to blame losing on but their ability to rise up to challenges.
That said, a challenge it will be. Fortunately, the Dodgers too win most of their games by out-scoring opponents. They have only won 4 games scoring less than 4 runs. The Cubs, however, can't expect to out-hit anyone, so good starting pitching will be critical: here are the probably match-ups according to Cubs.com
Tonight: Randy Wells vs. Randy Wolf. In all the doom and gloom, Wells has been the Cubs' most hope-inspiring attribute. His 1.50 ERA in 3 starts is likely to change, especially against a team this good, but he's consistently kept the Cubs in games, which is exactly what they'll need. Wolf has been the victim of a lot of no-decisions, so let's continue that trend. With a third left-handed starter in 4 games, it'll be interesting to see who Lou starts in comparison to yesterday.
Friday: Ted Lilly vs. Chad Billingsley. Billingsley has been nasty this season for the Dodgers with only his last start as exception. This will be the Cubs hardest game to win, especially if the wind blows out on Ted.
Saturday: Ryan Dempster vs. Eric Stults. The Cubs' best chance. Even last year, Dempster had a few starts where his control just evaporated at Wrigley Field. His last start was one of them and before that, Game 1 against the Dodgers last October. Generally, those events are isolated for Dempster, but even so, Stults comes off a 7-walk performance against Colorado, his first start after jamming his thumb earlier in the month.
Sunday: Sean Marshall vs. Eric Milton. A duel of the lefties if Hiroki Kuroda doesn't make it back from his rehab assignment after suffering an oblique injury. Milton is making his second start after Tommy John's surgery back in '07. Marshall comes off a strong outing against Pittsburgh where he was poised to go 7 innings had the rain not stopped the game.
Cubs to watch for:
- Jake Fox. Called up from AAA where he was hitting the daylights out of the ball, the utility man had a pinch-hit double to give the Cubs a cushion in the bottom of the eighth of yesterday's game. With 3 of 4 opposing pitchers scheduled to be left-handers, Fox (a right-handed batter) will likely get the nod to start once or twice in relieving lefty outfielders Milton Bradley and Kosuke Fukudome. This is his chance to prove he belongs on the roster.
- Alfonso Soriano has six hits since the Cubs' first loss of the 8-game skid. His one RBI was in that first loss to Houston as well. It's about time for this notorious streak hitter to find a hot streak. I mean, if the Cubs aren't paying him to be a 40-40 .300 guy, then they must be paying him to be streaky. He might even be sat for Fox one of these games if not tonight.
- Kevin Gregg. Presuming the Cubs are competitive, Gregg should be getting more save chances than he had in the last 10 games, since the Cubs will doubtfully ever be winning by more than 4 runs. Against a line-up that will always be threatening, more pressure will be on the bull pen if the Cubs have a lead, especially on Gregg.
- The team's temper. Not exactly a player to watch, but the players need to watch their anger management skills. Zambrano and Bradley seem to have rubbed off on the likes of Lilly and Dempster even, and the last thing this team needs is an off-the-field distraction by the press of how they have the hottest tempers in the majors.