Playoff victory finally in hand, Cubs well-armed for NL series

Deep pitching could prove difference against Marlins

October 07, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Chicago Cubs waited a long time for this, waited since the Teddy Roosevelt administration to celebrate after a postseason series.

Who else could really understand how that must feel? Not even the Boston Red Sox have known the trouble they've seen. The Red Sox haven't won a World Series title since 1918, but they've been around the block in October a few times in recent memory.

The Red Sox can whine all they want about the Curse of the Bambino, but Babe Ruth was an adolescent in 1908, the last time the Cubs had won anything in the postseason.

Don't even mention the Florida Marlins, who will join the Cubs at Wrigley Field tonight for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. That has to be the most galling thing of all.

The Marlins haven't been in existence as long as the light standards at Wrigley Field, but they won three playoff series and a World Series title in 1997 - their fifth season.

The Cubs' Division Series victory was a big hurdle, but it was only the first step in what could be a magical run for the long-suffering club and its fans. The Cubs are well positioned to win the best-of-seven NLCS, with a terrific starting rotation, a pretty good bullpen and slugger Sammy Sosa waiting to break out.

There's the karma thing, too, but that could play either way.

The Cubs don't have a history of near misses like the Red Sox. They had Bill Buckner once, but he never let anything get through his legs in Chicago. They've also been in a handful of playoff series over the years, but none of them really stands out as a symbol of Cubs futility.

There was the collapse of 1969, of course, but that was during the regular season.

For the most part, they've been lovable losers as long as anybody can remember, and this might be their best chance in a long time to fashion a winning personality.

Credit new manager Dusty Baker with changing the culture in the Cubs' clubhouse. He inherited a team that lost 95 games last year and opened the 2003 season as the third horse in a two-horse NL Central race.

"Somebody's going to win. Why not us?" Baker said again and again as the Cubs hung around the top of the standings.

However, Baker now says he didn't know what to expect when he jumped from the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants to the fifth-place Cubs.

"I really didn't know," he said late Sunday night, after the Cubs beat the Atlanta Braves, 5-1, in Game 5 to win Division Series. "I knew we had some good arms in the organization. We had Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou. We've got some quality players.

"Everybody starts off even, and to say I knew this, no, I didn't. I had no idea. We were just trying to play good ball, fundamental ball and [use] the power of belief to change a lot of the attitudes of everybody about the Cubs, including ourselves."

Baker also inherited something else - the best young starting rotation in baseball, and that will be on display beginning tonight when No. 3 starter Carlos Zambrano takes the mound against hard-throwing Marlins right-hander Josh Beckett.

The Marlins have a pretty good young pitching staff, too, but they don't have Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, home-field advantage or nearly the offensive firepower that the Cubs' staff muffled during the Division Series against the Braves.

What they do have is some wild-card mojo. The Giants are still trying to figure out how they could lose in four games to a team that looked overmatched on paper.

The Marlins are no pushovers - they had a better regular-season record than the Cubs- but Chicago appears to be in better position to get to the World Series.

Wood and Prior combined to go 3-0 with a 1.48 ERA against the Braves. The series went five games, so Baker can't stack them up in the first two games at Wrigley Field, but both will be able to pitch twice if the NLCS goes the limit.

Wood didn't even look particularly fatigued after dominating the Braves for eight innings Sunday night, but he chalked that up to the intensity of the moment.

"When you start getting close to the end of the season, I think that obviously helps and we all want to pitch a game that's mattered," Wood said. "We approach it that way. There seems to be a little more intensity and adrenaline in big games like that."

No one, however, is going to underestimate the Marlins after the impressive turnaround they engineered at midseason. Manager Jack McKeon took over a struggling team in early May that already was considering a July fire sale, but the Marlins battled their way back into the wild-card race and the club became a buyer instead of a seller at trade time.

They picked up closer Ugueth Urbina from the Texas Rangers and gave up two pretty good pitching prospects to get Jeff Conine from the Orioles before the Aug. 31 deadline for postseason eligibility.

They lost top run producer Mike Lowell to a regular season-ending injury in late August and still staged an impressive September surge to eliminate the well-heeled Philadelphia Phillies from the wild-card race.

Lowell is back for the postseason, but rookie replacement Miguel Cabrera was so impressive in the Division Series that it will be hard to pry him out of the starting lineup.

The X factor in this series might be the Marlins' team speed. The team stole an NL-high 150 bases this year, with leadoff man Juan Pierre winning the NL individual title with 65 and three others - Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo and Juan Encarnacion - combining for 61 more.

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