NLDS Game 3: Everyone Take a Deep Breath and Relax

1) The Cubs are still a very dangerous team, and one with their backs against the wall at that.
2) For as well as the Dodgers have played, you can’t ignore that the Cubs are nearly as responsible for their losses as the Dodgers are for their wins thanks to eight walks in Game 1 and four errors in Game 2.
3) You can never expect a sweep.
4) Sure, Hiroki Kuroda’s been pretty good, but Rich Harden’s been utterly dominant since going to Chicago.
Got that? Good, because those are important points to keep in mind while trying to contain our glee. Now on to the glee!
1) Manny Ramirez owns Rich Harden. Manny’s got 11 career at-bats against Harden, all Boston/Oakland matchups. In those 11 at-bats? Three homers. Considering Manny’s on a solid “one homer per 2008 NLDS game” pace and with a history like that, I’d say this is a pretty good sign. Otherwise, Harden’s never faced the Dodgers, and most of the LA roster has never seen him. Of the four besides Manny who have, three aren’t going to be in the lineup (Nomar, Ozuna, Berroa) and Casey Blake… is 0-8 with 5 strikeouts. Ugh. I know as well as you that this won’t happen, but i’d at least give consideration to the idea of letting Jeff Kent play second and moving Blake DeWitt to third for this one.
2) Hiroki Kuroda owns the Cubs. Harden who? Hiroki faced Chicago twice this season, and gave up just one earned run in 15.1 innings. Let’s bask in the warm glowing warmth of selected snippets from the ESPN game recap of his utterly dominating four-hit shutout on June 6:

Hiroki Kuroda was so good that Derrek Lee broke his bat in frustration at home plate after striking out in the seventh.

Kuroda allowed four hits and struck out a career-high 11 in his first complete game, leading Los Angeles to a 3-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
“I had a great time,” Ardoin said. “Whenever you go out there and compete with a guy who brought the intensity that he brought to the mound tonight, it’s always fun. His slider was very effective tonight. It was a big league slider, definitely. We had a plan going in, and he was great at executing it.”

“He was a different pitcher tonight than when he pitched in Chicago,” Lee said. “He wasn’t bad that time, either, but he didn’t have near the velocity he had tonight and his slider wasn’t as sharp. His slider was extremely good tonight and kept us off balance. I mean, when you have 11 strikeouts, you’re throwing some pretty good stuff up there.”

3) Hiroki Kuroda owns right-handed hitters. With Kosuke Fukudome likely on the bench for Game 3, the Cubs will either have an one-lefty lineup featuring Jim Edmonds (if Reed Johnson gets the start in right) or just two lefties (if Mike Fontenot plays second with Mark DeRosa going out to right). The importance of this simply cannot be overstated when you realize that Kuroda allowed the 10th lowest OPS to right-handed batters of any pitcher in baseball, and there’s some pretty hefty names occupying the nine spots ahead of him - guys like Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Hudson, and okay, fine, Rich Harden’s there too. It’s not hard to see why Kuroda had such success against the Cubs, seeing how strongly right-handed their lineup is. Clearly, what side of the plate you’re hitting from isn’t nearly as important as the talent you possess, and obviously the Cubs hitters are plenty talented. But this matchup couldn’t possibly be more tailor-made for Kuroda, could it?
In all seriousness, this looks to be on paper yet another fantastic pitching matchup, although we all saw how that worked out for the Cubs in the first two games. Harden’s made twelve starts for the Cubs and couldn’t possibly have been better, allowing only a .525 OPS and scoring a 1.77 ERA. When healthy, which is always an issue with him, he’s without a doubt one of the more talented pitchers in the game today. However, don’t underestimate Hiroki Kuroda. No, he’s not Harden’s equal by any stretch, but don’t forget what I wrote last week:

*Very quietly, Hiroki Kuroda has been incredibly valuable. After he allowed just two hits over five scoreless innings today, that makes eleven straight starts in which he hasn’t allowed more than four earned runs. Over those eleven starts his ERA is just 2.58, and he’s LA’s third starter at best. How many teams would kill for a first starter with those numbers?

A 2.58 ERA over 11 starts is nothing to take lightly, and that’s before you factor in his success against the Cubs and righties.
Finally, I’m sure there’s a great caption for this shot of Matt Kemp getting swallowed by the ivy the other night, but damned if I know what it is – although I must say, when I turned it sideways, it looked like he was swimming through a sea of leaves, which is kind of awesome as well.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

This Is SO Much Better Than Writing Season Reviews


Now, as MSTI did on his game 1 recap, I had considered going for the obvious Dodgers victory photo.  You know, hugging, high fiving, the whole works.  Yet I like this one so much better, for it really sums up a lot of tonight’s game.  If I had to caption this photo, I think I would go for the subtle angle with something like…
“Holy fucking shit, my defense is bad!  I want to die!”
And that would actually sum up a sizable portion of the game.  But let’s take it from the top…
Going into tonight, the biggest key of this game, as well as the main story, was Carlos Zambrano.  Would we get the good Zambrano who, when he’s on is one of the best in the game or the Zambrano who, sans a no-hitter last month, has been atrocious the past two months?  Well, that was actually answered very early on in the first inning.  Zambrano looked like he came ready to play, pitching an efficient first inning which included a strikeout to Manny (whom he struck out again in his next at-bat).  Even better for the Cubs, in his first ever postseason start, Chad Billingsley started off the first inning shaky, giving up a leadoff single to Alfonso Soriano, who then proceeded to take second on a wild pitch.  Thankfully, Billingsley followed up with two consecutive strikeouts to Ryan Theriot and Derrek Lee and finally, via an Aramas Ramirez flyout, he was out of the inning.  So, through 1, we’re scoreless.  O.K., phew, good.
So, let’s move on to the second, shall we?  O.K….
Andre Ethier leads off the top of the 2nd with a single to right.  Coming up next was James Loney, the star of game 1, who proceeds to hit it to Theriot.  Theriot decides to bare hand the ball and Loney gets the single, while Ethier advances to third.  Next comes up Matt Kemp, who strikes out.  O.K., not bad.  Sure, maybe there’s runners on 1st and 3rd, but there’s 1 out now. Double play and they’re out of it!  Alright, cool for them, except, unfortunately for them, this was about the time when the Cubs remembered they were… well, the Cubs.
Shit meet fan.  Fan meet shit.
Following Loney’s single, DeWitt comes up and hits into a fielder’s choice to score Ethier, but Loney remains safe at second on the throwing error by DeRosa. O.K., so perhaps a little bit unlucky… except the very next batter, Casey Blake, hits a ball to Derrek Lee that he cannot handle and advances Loney to third and DeWitt to second.  Another error.  Billingsley then strikes out for the second out to bring up Rafael Furcal to the plate.  He takes a risk and gives us one of his patented bunt singles to score a run.  2-0 Dodgers to bring up Martin, who proceeds to just hit a gap shot double to make it 5-0 Dodgers.
So, all like that.  5 runs, mostly thanks to their infield just taking a complete shit.  Of those 5 runs, only one of those runs were earned for Zambrano.  In fact, despite the final score being 10-3, only 5 total runs were earned to the Cubs’ pitching staff.  Also, you can’t really just chalk up this game to the Cubs “giving it away,” for that is untrue. The Dodgers capitalized on their opportunities and were rewarded for it. Though Zambrano actually put up a very respectable 6.1 IP innings, 3 ER, 2 BB, and 7 K’s and was beset by a shitty defense.  But having said that, Zambrano’s performance wasn’t enough to compete with Chad Billingsley.  Even with his shaky beginning in the 1st, he settled it very nicely and simply pitched like he has most of the year.  Thunder Thighs went 6.2 IP, 1 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 7 K’s.  I call that pretty damn good for anyone, much less in your very first postseason start.  Well done, Thunder Thighs!
Of course, other shout outs go out to Russell Martin who, for the first time in months, seems to look rejuvenated and the past two games have shown that.  Oh yeah… remember that Manny guy?  Yeah, just hit another mammoth HR to deep center in the 5th.  No biggie.
What I’ve really enjoyed the past two games is the plan that the Dodgers have had at the plate.  What they’ve been doing, and this was really highlighted in game 1, was being able to stay patient at the plate and work the count.  Even if the pitcher was doing well, work the count and get him out sooner. The only downside of the game was the shakiness of both Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton, but, for as typically ugly as that looked, it was pulled off.  So the series is 2-0 and headed back to L.A.  Hiroki Kuroda will take the mound, as he faces Rich Harden, for the opportunity to go to the NLCS.  Yes, that’s right, folks.  The Los Angeles Dodgers are just one game away from making the NLCS.
Something very peculiar is in the air, these days.  Let’s enjoy it while we can.
2 down, 9 to go.

- Vin vinscully-face.jpg

NLDS Game 2: Carlos Zambrano Is Harvey Dent

On to Game 2, and I don’t want to demean Chad Billingsley here, but he’s not tonight’s story. Don’t get me wrong – Billingsley ascended to become the true ace of the staff that so many had predicted he would be, and he was even better in the second half than the first, going 7-2 with a 2.99 ERA. In fact, save for a lousy outing in Pittsburgh on September 17th, Billingsley would have gone nearly three months without allowing more than three earned runs in a game, dating back to July 8th vs. Atlanta. That’s impressive for anyone, much less a kid who’s just turned 24. Sure, there’s always the worry that the postseason will shake a young player, although he did throw two scoreless innings in relief against the Mets two years ago. But Billingsley has been remarkably consistent and reliable all year long – you know that he’s going to give the Dodgers a good chance to win tonight, especially since no Cub has really had any success against him. The only Cub who’s even seen him more than ten times is Jim Edmonds, who managed only one hit in those eleven tries.

No, now that the Cubs are down a game, the entire series hinges on the biggest question mark on either team, and that’s including all the health questions LA has about Furcal and Kent – what can you expect out of Carlos Zambrano? While you pretty much know what you’re going to get from Billingsley, you have no idea whether Zambrano is going to give the Dodgers offense no chance whatsoever or single-handedly torpedo the Cubs season. Just look at his game logs to see how schizophrenic this guy is. I mean, what can you say about a guy who threw a no-hitter on September 14th, but still had his ERA for the month end up at 7.08? In two of his five starts in August, he gave up just one earned run – but was so lousy in the other three, his ERA for the month still ended up at 7.43.

Just looking at his monthly totals, you can see how all-or-nothing he is. Before his two awful months to close out the year, his July ERA was 1.78, which is fantastic. But before that, his June ERA was an awful 5.68! And before that, his May ERA was 2.45. I don’t know how Cubs fans deal, because I’m getting infuriated with him just writing this post.

Fittingly, he had two starts against the Dodgers, and there’s no middle ground here. On May 28th in Chicago, he was masterful, allowing just one run and four hits over eight innings – although I must point out that the Dodger lineup that night included Juan Pierre, Luis Maza (remember him?) and Chin-Lung Hu, a far cry from their current replacements of Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, and Rafael Furcal. Yet just over a week later on June 7th in Los Angeles, Zambrano got absolutely shelled, allowing 13 hits and 7 runs in 6.2 innings - including homers to Russell Martin and Matt Kemp.

In fact, Martin is one of the only Dodgers to have any career success against Zambrano, along with Andre Either. Martin’s got eight hits in thirteen at-bats for a glowing .615 average, and Ethier’s six for thirteen, which gets him a .462. Unfortunately, Zambrano’s dominated Kent, Pierre, and Furcal, holding all three of them below a .250 average.

But really, all that matter is which Zambrano shows up. Is it going to be the one who was just a walk short of a perfect game three weeks ago against Houston? Or the one who allowed 13 runs and 7 walks in 6.1 innings over 2 starts since?

Hey, at least the Chicago papers aren’t freaking out yet…

Chicago Sun-Times:

Uh-oh.

If this is what the rest of the Cubs’ postseason is going to look like, it’s going to be a short playoff run.

And a long century.

Chicago Tribune:

Not to put pressure on Carlos Zambrano, but the Cubs need to win Game 2 of their National League Division Series against the Dodgers late Thursday night, or it could be going on 101 years since the Cubs have won a World Series.

How about the national media, say, Dayn Perry of FOXsports.com?

To be sure, it’s far from over, but the Cubs have put themselves in an unenviable position. Since the Division Series was instituted, there have been 52 such best-of-five affairs, and teams that take the opening contest have won 35 of those 52 series. In other words, the team that wins Game 1 of the Division Series goes on to win the entire series more than two-thirds of the time. So in that regard, the Cubs are working against history. They’re also working against an opponent that’s much improved.

It’s such an odd feeling, this “success”, isn’t it? The importance of winning Game 1 simply cannot be overstated – this is now a must-win for Chicago, while the Dodgers know they go home no worse than tied. Game 2! Tonight!

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

Ladies Love Cool James

Folks, this game had heartbreak written all over it, because for a while, this was like watching the pre-Manny Dodgers again. Derek Lowe was again effective, allowing only a wind-aided Mark DeRosa two-run homer over his six innings of work. But the offense, despite Ryan Dempster’s attempts to the contrary, had nothing going. Dempster walked four in the first three innings, yet the Dodgers simply could not capitalize, and nothing was more painful than getting the batter you want in the situation you want – Andre Ethier up with the bases loaded in the third inning – and coming away with nothing, when Ethier struck out on a ball in the dirt.

Worse, you were just getting the feeling that this wasn’t going to be the Dodgers’ night. Whereas DeRosa’s drive to right got enough wind to drift into the stands, Russell Martin’s fly to deep left with two men on in the third hung in the wind just enough to drop into Alfonso Soriano’s glove. When Casey Blake hit a screaming line drive, it was right at Derrek Lee. Through three innings, the only hit the Blue could muster was an infield single to shortstop that Manny beat out.

The Dodgers, sorry to say, looked completely uninterested.

Except that in the fifth inning, Ryan Dempster fell apart. Rafael Furcal, Manny, and Ethier all showed excellent patience and drew walks, sandwiched around a Martin flyout. With the bases loaded, up steps James Loney. That’s the same Loney who had been dreadful in September, putting up only a .209/.229/.297 and had begun losing starts while being platooned with Nomar Garciaparra. To be completely honest, he didn’t even look that great in the first few pitches of this at-bat. But then Dempster gets one in the zone, Loney takes a swing and… it can’t be… it could be… oh my god… GRAND SLAM.

With that one swing – and dig Loney’s enormous smile in the dugout afterwards – the entire game was changed, and it was really never in question after that. Manny and Martin each added homers to extend the lead, and Cory Wade, Jonathan Broxton, and best of all, Greg Maddux each pitched one scoreless inning to finish off the completely shellshocked Cubs. As the TBS announcers noted in the 9th inning, “have you ever seen Wrigley Field this quiet?”

And with that, everything’s changed. Jose Lima never need be spoken of again. Even better, this series is now guaranteed to go back to Los Angeles no worse than tied, and that’s the most you can ask for when you’re opening on the road. One more thing – the Cubs are 0-10 lifetime when losing the first game of a playoff series. Let’s make it 11!

One down, ten to go. Back tomorrow with a Game 2 preview!

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

The First Step Towards Erasing the Memory of Jose Lima…

…starts today. It’s kind of hard to drum up the same sort of vitriol for the Cubs as you would for a team like the Padres or the Giants, though, isn’t it? I mean, how can you hate the Cubs? Honestly, if the Dodgers should get knocked out, I’m probably rooting for the Cubs to be the ones to take it. Besides – even Cubs fans know that Bill Plaschke is awful, judging by the most recent post on Cubs blog Wrigleyville23.
So let’s get it on. You know we don’t usually do game previews and recaps around here, but I’d say it’s safe to ratchet things up to “Code Blue” for the duration of the playoffs.
Game 1 Dodgers lineup

Furcal SS
Martin C
Manny LF
Ethier RF
Loney 1B
Kemp CF
DeWitt 2B
Blake 3B
Lowe P
No surprises here, and that’s a good thing. I wish you could have placed bets on things like “the Dodgers will make the playoffs and none of Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, and Jeff Kent will be in the Game 1 lineup.” Really, I can’t complain about any of this, though it is extremely interesting to see Casey Blake batting 8th. And how good does it feel to see “Furcal” penciled in at the top again?
Game 1 starters  - Derek Lowe (14-11, 3.24 ERA) vs Ryan Dempster (17-6, 2.96 ERA)
Look, both of these guys have had excellent years, Dempster in particular. But the most important thing to know here is that Derek Lowe has been absolutely out of his mind good lately. Dig these stats over his last nine starts – 5-1, 0.94 ERA, and he’s allowing batters just a .193/.234/.238 line. Remember, that’s not just a good start or two; this goes back about six weeks. He’s given up just 6 earned runs in 9 starts! In addition, Lowe’s playoff tested, having been in 18 games (7 starts) in which he’s put up a 3.36 ERA.
Even better, Lowe’s had good success against the Cubs this year, giving up just 3 earned runs in 14 innings over 2 starts in 2008. Let’s look at Lowe’s career stats against some of the Cubs he’ll be facing today who’ve seen him more than ten times:
Alfonso Soriano: .245/.259/.453 in 53 at-bats
Jim Edmonds: .167/.194/.300 in 30 at-bats
Derrek Lee: .393/.433/.536 in 28 at-bats
Aramis Ramirez: .154/.267/.231 in 13 at-bats
Reed Johnson: .364/.364/.455 in 11 at-bats
Clearly, Lowe needs to pitch around Derrek Lee, but otherwise that’s pretty good (Johnson is unlikely to be in the starting lineup). Considering how hot he’s been lately and his history of postseason success, the Dodgers look to be in pretty good shape.
As for Dempster, he’s been no slouch either, also going 5-1 over the same final nine starts as Lowe, but while is 3.05 ERA is certainly in no way lousy, it’s not exactly Lowe’s 0.94 either. Just like Lowe, Dempster made two starts against today’s opponent this year and did pretty well, giving up just 4 earned runs in 12.1 innings. Let’s check out the Dodgers against him with ten or more at-bats:
Jeff Kent: .273/.324/.364 in 33 at-bats
Rafael Furcal: .214/.371/.321 in 28 at-bats
Juan Pierre: .417/.500/.500 in 12 at-bats
Andre Ethier: .455/.455/.909 in 11 at-bats
There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing that Andre Ethier has had some really good success against Dempster, considering that he’s been killing the entire sport over the last two months.
Dempster does have one other thing going for him, though – as reported by Deadspin just about a year ago, he gives, let’s say, “entertaining” autographs to female fans.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg