Monday, September 29, 2008 Updated: September 30, 11:46 AM ET
Dodgers won't be a pushover for favored Cubs
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
If the regular-season series between the Cubs and Dodgers is any indication, this is going to be a low-scoring, very close NLDS.
In the six games between the two teams, there were a total of 37 runs scored, there were two one-run games, two two-run games, a three-run game and a four-run game. There were no blowouts, and there was lots of good pitching. Even though the Cubs are the best-hitting team in the National League, and the Cubs will see Manny Ramirez for the first time as a member of the Dodgers, look for well-pitched, low-scoring games.
Anyway, here are five questions heading into the series:
What is the Manny effect?
Manny Ramirez has changed the look and the approach of the Dodgers' lineup, and it goes beyond the 17 homers and 53 RBIs (he's second player ever to drive in 50 runs for two teams in the same season) that he had in the last two months.
Before Ramirez arrived, the young Dodgers hitters were often undisciplined at the plate. Plus, said a club source, "they were more concerned about their statistics, not whether we won or lost the game.'' Ramirez hasn't changed all of that by himself, but the Dodgers are more selective and taking better at-bats. In September, they averaged 5.4 runs per game. They outscored their opponents, 135-86, after barely outscoring their opponents in the first five months of the season combined.
Cubs ace (?) Carlos Zambrano has had an interesting last few weeks. First, he had a tired arm that some thought was something serious, then he threw a no-hitter, then he got lit up a couple of times. So, where is he now? That's unclear. All we know is he's scheduled to start Game 2 behind Ryan Dempster. Rich Harden is slated to start Game 3.
A former teammate of Zambrano was asked recently if Zambrano was up for the pressure of starting a Game 1 of the playoffs. "No,'' the teammate said. "He has a big heart and big stones, but he'll be way too fired up. He can't even calm down for the first game of the season, let alone the first game of the playoffs.'' Maybe he'll be different in Game 3. He's as good a Game 3 pitcher as you'll find.
Lowe last lost Aug. 26 and in his last 10 starts, he has a 1.23 ERA. "I've never seen his sinker better than it has been lately,'' one scout said.
Billingsley is a stud. Kuroda allowed one earned run in 15 1/3 innings against the Cubs this year. That's a lot of right-handers. And toss in another righty, Jonathan Broxton, who leads a pretty stout bullpen. The Cubs hit .274 and slugged .443 against righties, and they batted .288 and slugged .442 against lefties.
With all of those right-handers, Jim Edmonds will play a lot for the Cubs in center field.
What influence will Joe Torre have on this series?
As much as a manager can possibly have, which, granted, usually isn't much. But this is Torre's 13th consecutive trip to the postseason; only Bobby Cox, with 14, has a longer streak in baseball history (and no other manager has been even six years in a row). So, when some of the young Dodgers who are inexperienced in postseason play go to Torre for advice, he'll know exactly what to tell them. The first thing he likely will tell them is it's not the fault of this team that the Dodgers have won only one playoff game in the last 20 years.
Is not winning the World Series for 100 years a good thing or a bad thing for Cubs?
It's a good thing in this series. They made it clear in spring training -- at least Game 1 starter Ryan Dempster did -- that this was the year they were going to win the World Series. And they've played most of the season like the best team in the National League, which they are. Maybe they're being pushed by the fact their best fans all believe this is going to happen. The flip side, however, is that they'll enter the postseason knowing that just getting to the World Series (which they haven't managed to do since 1945) won't be enough. They have to win it all. With Zambrano's temper and manager Lou Piniella's impatient nature, maybe a quick loss in this series will bring on a sense of panic.
I don't think that's going to happen. Even though the NL team with the best record has won the World Series only once in the last 22 years (the 1995 Braves), this is the year the Cubs will finally win it all. But it won't be easy.
Prediction: Cubs in 5.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback on May 27. Click here to order a copy.