The 2008 Cubs exceeded almost everyone’s expectations and won a whopping 97 games.  Despite Fukudome’s second half vanishing act, the beginning of the end of Derrek Lee (or maybe just an off year?), and an injury-plagued season for Soriano, the Cubs offense led the NL in runs scored, OBP, SLG, walks, and doubles.  Despite losing last year’s # 3 starter Rich Hill early in the season, the pitching staff managed to finish second in the NL in runs allowed and first in strikeouts.  If you’ve been watching the Cubs all season, you know how this happened: on offense, the Cubs got tremendous contributions from mid-May pickup Jim Edmonds, 2B/RF Mark DeRosa, and rookie catcher Geovany Soto, which more than offset some decline in production from the “big boys” (Lee, Ramirez, Soriano); pitching-wise, Ryan Dempster exceeded all reasonable projections and had a great season, Rich Harden provided 71 innings of unhittable-ness, and Carlos Marmol struck out 114 in under 90 innings.

The Cubs offense, unlike the other NL playoff squads, is not built around a few core guys; instead, it is solid all the way through, featuring six players with 20+ homers this year.  Of the regulars, only Jim Edmonds finshed with an OPS over .900 (and only if you disregard his abysmal Padres numbers), but four other Cubs—Soto, Ramirez, DeRosa, and Soriano—finished with an OPS between .850 and .900.  This is, in short, a very balanced lineup.  The bench is decent: Reed Johnson can mash lefties, Mike Fontenot posted an OPS of .909 in over 280 PA, and Henry Blanco is as capable a backup catcher as one could hope for.

Besides Demspter and Harden (and playoff odd man out Jason Marquis), the Cubs rotation features the mercurial Carlos Zambrano and the homer-prone Ted Lilly.  Both had pretty good years overall, but they are currently headed in opposite directions: Lilly has posted a 3.65 ERA in his last nine starts, while Zambrano has a 7.48 ERA over his last nine starts, despite having thrown a no-hitter during that stretch.  Zambrano is perhaps the Cubs’ biggest question mark headed into the NLDS.

The Cubs are generally healthy right now, though there are a few concerns.  Geovany Soto injured his hand recently, and after resting for a few days, he had to be pulled from his return game in the middle of an at-bat.  Though the injury is not going to keep him from playing in the NLDS, it could make him less effective at the plate.  Mark DeRosa also injured himself recently, but claims that he will be back in time for the start of the NLDS.  Zambrano is not injured, really, but he is almost certainly hurting, and, outside of the no-hitter, it has rendered him totally ineffective lately.  As mentioned previously, this is probably the Cubs’ biggest concern right now.  Harden has mysteriously suffered from a lack of both control and velocity in his last few starts, but has somehow remained effective.  He is truly impressive: a pitcher with A+ stuff who also happens to have an A+ mind for pitching.

All in all, the Cubs can’t be too displeased with the state of their team as they enter the NLDS against the Dodgers.  It’s tempting to wish that Zambrano and Harden were pitching as well as they were in late July—it’s hard to imagine any team beating the July 28-31 Cubs—but it’s also easy to imagine the Cubs coming into this series with one or more of their regulars out for the season.  Now what’s in store for Game 1?

Game 1: Dempster vs. Lowe

Let’s not kid ourselves: Derek Lowe owns the Cubs.  His two starts against the Cubbies this year:

May 28 @ Chicago: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K, ND

June 2 in L.A.: 8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 3 K, W

Of the current Cubs with a significant number of plate appearances against Lowe, only Derrek Lee has hit him well, and that success all came before this year.  The Cubs will have a tough time scoring off of Lowe.

As for Dempster, it’s tough to accurately gauge his effectiveness against the Dodgers’ hitters due to his changed style and repertoire on the mound this year.  Looking at career stats probably isn’t too helpful given his transformation; how has he done this year?  Well, his two starts against the Dodgers went like this:

May 26 in Chicago: 7 IP, 7 H, 1R, 3 BB, 3 K

June 5 @ L.A.: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 1 K (NOTE: I actually saw this game in person—good game, but my $7 margarita was a tad weak.)

Good run prevention, but the peripherals—5 BB and 4 K in 12.1 IP—are not good, and both these starts were pre-Manny.

Look: just like last year against Brandon Webb, the Cubs are the underdogs in Game 1.  In addition, the Cubs are starting a pitcher in Game 2 who has posted a 7.48 ERA over the last two months against a guy (Chad Billingsley) who has more strikeouts than innings pitched on the year.  In short, we are set up for, if I may coin a phrase, certain impending disaster.  There is no doubt that the Cubs are the better team; there is also no doubt that they could easily get beaten each of the next two games.  It wouldn’t even be a surprise.

So what’s my pick?  Well, I think that the Cubs will somehow find a way to win against Lowe, but I think Zambrano will be bad, sending the series to L.A. tied.  I don’t think the Dodgers have a chance against Harden given that most of them haven’t seen him, and I think Lilly, pitching in a ballpark that hides his only glaring weakness, his proclivity to give up oodles of homers, will be magnificent.  So: Cubs in 4.  And if the Cubs should happen to lose both games at home, I still like their chances to bring it back to Chicago given the Harden/Lilly combo that would be going in L.A.  And if the Cubs win both games in Wrigley?  Forget it—Dodgers are DONE.