Playoffs


Here we are again: the Cubs down 1-0 in the NLDS and looking extremely tight and nervous.  The situation is arguably worse this year, as the Cubs are sending to the mound in Game 2 a man who has had nothing his last couple times out.  Let’s pretend that Carlos hasn’t been crappy lately; what do the numbers say?

Game 2: Zambrano vs. Billingsley

Martin, Ethier, and Kemp have eaten Zambrano for lunch in their short careers, but the sample sizes are small.  Still, this is troubling.  Zambrano’s two starts against the Dodgers this year:

May 28th in Chicago: 8 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 3 K, W

June 7th @ L.A.: 6.2 IP, 13 H (!!), 7 R, 1 BB, 6 K, L

All together: 14.2 IP, 19 H, 8 R, 5 BB, 9 K, 1-1

So one pretty good start and one bad start, both pre-Manny.

What about Billingsley versus the Cubs?  Let’s forget career stats and just look at this year:

May 26th @ Chicago: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K, L

June 5th in L.A.: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 8 K, ND

All together: 11 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 BB, 15 K, 0-1

Neither pitcher really excelled in his starts against the opposing team this year, though Billingsley’s strikeout total is impressive.  This is probably a better matchup for the Cubs than Lowe, but that’s not really saying much.

Were Zambrano pitching at the top of his game, I’d be optimistic about tonight; however, given his recent performance, I have a bad feeling that this one will get out of hand early.  The Cubs will probably put more than 2 on the board against Billingsley, but it won’t matter if Z craps the bed.  As Cubs fans, all we can hope for is that our mercurial faux ace pitches like he did earlier in the season.

One last thing: if the Cubs do lose tonight, they will have a better chance of reeling off three straight to win the series than they did last year after falling behind 0-2.  The Dodgers will likely have a tough time with Harden even if he’s not completely on his game, and Lilly matches up very favorably with either short-rest Lowe or whatever guy the Dodgers select to pitch Game 4.  However, the most probable road to a series victory obviously begins with a win tonight.

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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.

Brandon Webb is good at baseball.  Sometimes people who are good at baseball beat you, and there’s not much you can do about it.  Yes, Carlos Marmol gave up two runs; that wasn’t the problem.  The Cubs hitters simply couldn’t get it done against Mr. Webb, and that’s not really an indictment of them so much as a compliment of Mr. Webb.

Doug Davis is mediocre at baseball.  Ted Lilly has actually been very similar to Davis in his career, except this year he’s been significantly better.  The Cubs should win tonight, what with their “better hitting,” and if they do, this series goes back to Chicago tied, and the Cubs have a great chance to win it.  However, if they lose, it’s almost certainly over.  So, no pressure!  But seriously, let’s get some runs early and put Davis to bed, then feast on the bad half of the D’Backs’ bullpen.  I don’t want a close game tonight.

This game–not last night’s game–is the crucial one in this series.

I don’t have much to say since other sites have done good series previews, but let me give you a few facts about matchups:

Game 1: Webb vs. Zambrano

As you might expect, most Cubs hitters have struggled against Webb in their careers, but the sample sizes are pretty small.  Only Aramis Ramirez has more than 20 plate appearances against Webb, and his line is .238/.292/.381.  We’ve just gotta hope that some ground balls find holes.  As for Zambrano, he’s faced very few of the current Diamondbacks hitters, and he’s pretty much dominated them (.500 OPS against).  If he can keep himself under control tonight, then he should be very good; there are no matchup problems.

Game 2: Davis vs. Lilly

Doug Davis has been quite effective against most of the Cubs, but there are a couple notable exceptions: Soriano is 5 for 14 with a homer off Davis, Theriot is 4 for 6, and Matt Murton is 4 for 10 with a double and two walks.  Lee has struck out 12 times in 22 at-bats against Davis, but he’s still posted a .500 SLG.  Lilly has done OK against the Diamondbacks hitters, though he has allowed a composite .455 SLG.  Tony Clark, Jeff Cirillo, and Eric Byrnes have faced Lilly more than 10 times; everyone else has only seen him in the game earlier this year.  Are we really going to worry about Jeff Cirillo?

Game 3: Hill vs. Hernandez

Like most of the matchups in this series, the Hill vs. D’Backs hitters numbers are based on a very small sample size.  That said, the numbers favor Hill, who has allowed only one homer to the current crop of Snakes while striking out 12.  Eric Byrnes has faced Hill 10 times and sports a line if .333/.400/.778 off  him, so those at-bats will be crucial.  Livan Hernandez actually has faced some of the Cubs a significant number of times, and he has not fared well: DeRosa, Floyd, and Ramirez (.962 SLG!) have all hit him really hard.

Game 4 would most likely be Z (on three days’ rest) vs. Owings.  Game 5 would be Webb vs. Lilly.  The Game 1 matchup favors the D’Backs, but not by as much as everyone seems to think.  If Zambrano is calm and on his game, he can match zeros with Webb.  Games 2 and 3 favor the Cubs.  If the Cubs can pull out a victory tonight, there’s no doubt in my mind they win this series.  If they lose, it gets a little dicier, but they still have a great chance.  Of course, they are the Cubs, so they’ll probably get swept.

The rosters were announced, and Kevin Hart made the cut!  I think this is a good move.  Marquis will be coming out of the bullpen, and Ronny Cedeño will unfortunately be on the bench.

Cubs going to the playoffs, probably against the D’Backs.  I think this team is the easiest to beat despite their record, and so I’m pretty happy.  A quick look at the playoff roster:

IN FO’ SHO’

Kendall

Lee

DeRosa

Theriot

Ramirez

Soriano

Jones

Floyd

Zambrano

Lilly

Hill

Marquis

Marmol

Howry

Demptster

Eyre

Wood

PROBABLY ON THE PLAYOFF ROSTER

Murton

Soto

Ward (is he injured?–if not, he’s “fo’ sho'”)

Wuertz

Pie

That’s 22 people.  The other three spots will most likely go to one reliever and two position players.  Who?  Well, the reliever will almost certainly be either Will Ohman, Sean Marshall, or Kevin Hart.  My vote goes to Hart, who has been fantastic so far (small sample size, I know), but I suspect the Cubs’ braintrust will not be inclined to have a rookie with 11 big league innings under his belt pitching in the playoffs.  That leaves Ohman and Marshall.  I think Marshall is far and away the better choice since he’s a) a better pitcher and b) can be used in long relief if and when some Cubs starter stinks it up.  As far as the position players, I think the spots should go to Mike Fontenot and either Craig Monroe or Sam Fuld, but I get the sick feeling that we may see Ronny Cedeño on the playoff roster since he’s the only real shortstop in the pool of available backups.  This reasoning is quite stupid, I think, but I fear it may be used.  Fuld would be a second pinch runner/defensive replacement, and Monroe would act as a pinch hitter or even a starting centerfielder against lefties.  I suspect Monroe will get the nod.

The D’Backs would certainly throw Webb in Game 1, probably followed by Doug Davis in Game 2 and Micah Owings in Game 3.  Once the rotations are set (and once it’s 100% that the Cubs will be facing the Snakes), I’ll have a series preview up.