SERIES: NL Championship Series, Game 1.
Two days after their 95-year wait ended, Chicago Cubs’ fans get to rejoice with their team in person.
Coming off their monumental opening round playoff victory, the Cubs return to Wrigley Field to open the NL championship series against the Florida Marlins.
This series will feature a matchup of talented young pitching staffs and a pair of teams that few expected might reach the World Series when the season started. However, that’s exactly where one of them will end up.
“I think it’s good for baseball. I think it’s good for the country,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said Monday. “The Marlins, I don’t think they were picked over there and I know we were picked third or fourth over here,” he said.
Chicago won its first postseason series since winning the 1908 World Series as they beat the Atlanta Braves 5-1 on Sunday night in the deciding Game 5 of its division series.
“This is 2003,” Baker said. “When the year started we just said, ‘Hey, whatever happened in the past, you’ve got to leave it in the past.”’
Baker led Chicago to its first division title and trip to the NLCS since 1989, when the team fell to the San Francisco Giants in five games.
The Giants were stunned this year by the Marlins, who won their division series in four games. Florida, which has the best record in the majors since May 23, knocked out the NL West champions after becoming only the ninth team to come from at least 10 games under .500 to make the postseason.
“We’re all on a high, really,” said 72-year-old Jack McKeon, the oldest manager ever to reach the playoffs. “It’s an exciting time. No one thought we’d be here. People probably still don’t believe we’re here.”
Wood was brilliant in winning Games 1 and 5 against Atlanta, while Prior threw a two-hitter to win Game 3. In this series, Prior will pitch Game 2 and Wood will go in Game 3.
First up for Chicago is another youngster, Carlos Zambrano. The 22-year-old Venezuelan struggled in his postseason debut, failing to get through six innings and getting pounded for 11 hits in Game 2 against Atlanta. Zambrano did not get the decision, however, as he allowed three runs in the 5-3 loss .
He’ll be opposed by Josh Beckett, the 23-year-old right-hander who was outstanding for the Marlins in their division series opener. Beckett surrendered one run and two hits while striking out nine in seven innings, but was outpitched by San Francisco’s Jason Schmidt in a 2-0 loss.
Beckett will be followed in the rotation by Brad Penny, Mark Redman and NL rookie of the year candidate Dontrelle Willis. Among the starters scheduled to take the mound in this series, all are younger than 30 years old.
“The similarities, they’re all young, up-and-coming, power arms,” said ex-Marlin Matt Clement, the oldest member of Chicago’s playoff rotation at 29. “Beckett, without getting hurt last year, was supposedly on the same keel as Prior. And lately he’s pitching like he’s one of the best in the game.”
The man calling the pitches for Beckett is being credited with leading Florida to victory in the first round.
Ivan Rodriguez topped the team with a .353 average (6-for-17) and six RBIs in the division series, and was also impressive defensively. He picked off J.T. Snow at first base in the sixth inning with the game tied Sunday, then withstood a collision to tag Snow for the final out of Florida’s 7-6 victory.
“This is what I’ve wanted for a long time,” said Rodriguez, who had never won a playoff series during his 12 years with Texas. “And there’s nothing better than me getting the last out.”
The Cubs’ offensive star, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from a poor first round.
Sammy Sosa went 3-for-16 (.188) with no homers and one RBI against Atlanta. However, in six games against Florida this season—including four Chicago wins—Sosa hit three homers while batting .320 (8-for-25) and driving in six runs.
“I know what we’ve got,” Sosa said. “I don’t really like to talk about the Marlins so much because I don’t know. But I know what we’ve got. I know we’re ready and we’re gonna be there Tuesday.
“I’m going to stay with my same plan. I don’t want to go crazy, trying to hit home runs. It’s not about home runs, it’s about winning.”
Game 2 is Wednesday in Chicago.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Marlins - NL wild card; beat San Francisco 3-1, division series. Cubs - NL Central champions; beat Atlanta 3-2, division series.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Marlins - CF Juan Pierre (.305, 1 HR, 41 RBIs), 2B Luis Castillo (.314, 6, 39), C Rodriguez (.297, 16, 85), 1B Derrek Lee (.271, 31, 92), 3B Miguel Cabrera (.268, 12, 62), RF Juan Encarnacion (.270, 19, 94), LF Jeff Conine (.282, 20, 95), SS Alex Gonzalez (.256, 6, 18). Cubs - CF Kenny Lofton (.296, 12 HRs, 46 RBIs), 2B Mark Grudzielanek (.314, 3, 38), RF Sosa (.279, 40, 103), LF Moises Alou (.280, 22, 91), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.272, 27, 106), 1B Randall Simon (.275, 16, 72), SS Alex Gonzalez (.228, 20, 59), C Damian Miller (.233, 9, 36).
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Beckett (9-8, 3.04 ERA). One of Beckett’s worst outings came on July 7 against the Cubs as he allowed season highs of six runs and 10 hits in six innings of a 6-3 defeat. Beckett won his only previous appearance against Chicago, but that came in 2001. The right-hander has a 2.26 ERA in his last nine starts, but the Giants have averaged just 2.9 runs in those outings.
CUBS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Zambrano (13-11, 3.11 ERA). The right-hander has given up 17 runs and 26 hits in 15 1-3 innings over his last three starts. However, all of those appearances came on the road. In his last four outings at Wrigley, Zambrano has a 1.41 ERA in 32 innings. He is 1-1 with a 1.59 ERA in three career starts against the Marlins. Zambrano was terrific in his only outing against them in 2003, throwing six scoreless innings in a 4-3 loss July 8.
SEASON SERIES: Cubs, 4-2.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Marlins - C Rodriguez batted .391 (9-for-23) with three homers and five RBIs against Chicago this year. … 3B Cabrera is expected to continue starting instead of 3B Mike Lowell, the team leader with 32 homers and 105 RBIs. Lowell, who went 0-for-3 in his only start during the first round, returned on the final day of the regular season after missing four weeks with a broken hand. … Florida had just two steals in the division series after leading the majors with 150. Cubs - LF Alou, who helped Florida win the World Series in 1997, led Chicago with a .500 average (10-for-20) in the division series. … The players acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline all had key roles in the Cubs advancing. CF Lofton, 3B Ramirez and 1B Simon hit a combined .304 (14-for-46) with six RBIs in the first round. … RHPs Joe Borowski and Kyle Farnsworth along with LHP Mike Remlinger, considered Chicago’s top relievers, yielded two hits over 5 1-3 scoreless innings in the first round.
HOME/ROAD RECORDS: Marlins - 46-35 on the road in regular season, 1-1 in postseason; Cubs - 44-37 at home in regular season, 1-1 in postseason.