Cubs like chances, if not situation

Chicago pitching lined up to buck history, clinch NL

October 14, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - The Chicago Cubs are caught in a strange historical vortex. If the past is any indication, they can't win the National League Championship Series that resumes with Game 6 tonight at Wrigley Field ... and there is almost no way they can lose.

Granted, that doesn't appear to make a lot of sense, but any long-suffering Cubs fan can see the logic.

The Cubs haven't won the National League pennant since 1945. They haven't won a world title since Teddy Roosevelt was president. They haven't been this close to the World Series since they were one game away from winning the 1984 NLCS against the San Diego Padres and proceeded to drop three straight and lose the series.

"That's what we've been fighting here all year long," said manager Dusty Baker. "Every time you lose a game, someone conjures up something negative that happened before."

Still, you have to forgive Cubs Nation for feeling a little less than flush as the playoffs move back to Chicago with the Cubs holding a 3-2 advantage in the best-of-seven series. No one who has been paying attention the past 50 years or so would be foolish enough to assume anything at this point.

Now, for the good news. Recent history decidedly favors the Cubs and the two outstanding pitchers who are lined up to pitch tonight and in a possible seventh game tomorrow.

Right-hander Mark Prior has been on a terrific roll since he returned from the disabled list in early August. He went 10-1 down the stretch and has been particularly dominating in the postseason, so there's little reason to think he'll be anything else when he faces Florida Marlins right-hander Carl Pavano in Game 6.

If the Marlins somehow find a way past him, Kerry Wood also is undefeated in the postseason. The two of them have started five of the Cubs' six victories in the first two playoff rounds.

"I think we're in a pretty good position," Baker said. "If anybody had told anybody months ago we'd be up 3-2 in the NLCS with a chance to go to the World Series, I think everyone in the whole world would have been extremely happy and no one would have conjured up anything."

Need more Cubs comfort? Prior and Wood have both lost to the same team in the same series once all year, falling to the NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals in early July. Neither one has ever lost to the Marlins. They are a combined 6-0 lifetime with a 2.30 ERA (including postseason) against the team that needs to beat them twice at home to keep them out of the World Series.

Prior has proven he can handle postseason pressure, and he clearly is aware of what's at stake. He has been in the majors for only a year and a half, but it didn't take him long to figure out what the Cubs mean to Chicago.

"I think just showing up at the Cubs' convention the first year, I think that was all you needed really to see," he said Sunday. "You've got 15,000 people in a ballroom on Jan. 15 with three inches of snow on the ground.

"It would be a big thing for them. It would be huge for the city, for all the fans that have supported them throughout the years. ... Hopefully, we can get past this hurdle and move on. But hopefully the city, whatever the outcome, they can say, `Hey, 2003 was a good year.' "

It certainly was a great year for Prior, even though he missed several weeks at midseason after injuring his shoulder in a collision with Atlanta Braves infielder Marcus Giles.

His performance since returning from the disabled list on Aug. 4 has been almost otherworldly. He went 10-1 with a 1.52 ERA from that point to the end of the regular season and wowed a national television audience with a two-hitter against the Braves in the Division Series.

In his first start of the NLCS, he wasn't quite so overpowering, but he didn't need to be in a Game 2 blowout at Wrigley Field. If he's starting to feel the effects of his first full season in the major leagues, Prior isn't complaining.

"Guys, I'm sure, are tired," he said, "but there's no time to be tired right now. You don't feel tired, even if you are tired. As soon as the season is over, you might be so drained you don't know what hit you. Guys are pushing right now and having a great time."

Baker raised some eyebrows when he allowed Prior to work into the eighth inning of Game 2 instead of lifting him early with a nine-run lead and preserving him for this start. But Prior will be working on six days' rest when he takes the mound tonight.

"Sure, he's thrown a lot of pitches in September, and so has everyone else," Baker said. "But Mark missed three weeks, too, which I think helped him throw those number of pitches in September. Mark has been exceptionally good."

The Marlins shuffled their rotation to move Pavano into their second sudden-death situation, the decision based on Pavano's past success against the hitters in the Cubs' lineup.

Pavano has spent the postseason in the bullpen, which could create an endurance issue, but he expressed confidence yesterday in his ability to readjust quickly to a more familiar starting role.

"I've made 32 starts this year," Pavano said. "I'm used to starting. I'm not going into uncharted waters. Maybe the uncharted waters will be pitching in a playoff game in Wrigley Field. But I'm looking at it as a fun, exciting and challenging experience. My team is counting on me, and I'm counting on myself to get the job done."

NLCS glance

Tonight's game

Florida (Pavano 12-13, 4.30) at Chicago (Prior 18-6, 2.43), 8:18, chs. 45, 5 (Chicago leads series 3-2)

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