The Chicago Cubs have a long and storied history spanning more than a century. Postseason success is not a recent part of it, though.
The NL Central champion Cubs look to take the first step towards their first World Series title in 99 years when they meet the NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks, who have already won a World Series in their first decade of existence, in Game 1 of the division series Wednesday at Chase Field.
Chicago was the first franchise to win consecutive World Series titles in 1907 and ’08, but hasn’t won a championship since. The Cubs haven’t been to the World Series since 1945, and in their most recent playoff trip in 2003 suffered a stunning collapse in the NL championship series, the latest chapter in the series of heartbreaks the team and its fans have dealt with in trying to end the title drought.
Chicago led the Florida Marlins 3-1 in that series, and after losing Game 5, was up 3-0 going into the eighth inning of Game 6 at Wrigley Field. But in the wild inning that unfolded, the Cubs allowed eight runs before going on to lose 8-3, and watched the Marlins rally again the following night to win the series.
Chicago had the worst record in the NL last year, and it looked like it would be another disappointing season for the Cubs in 2007 after they fell nine games below .500 on June 2, leaving them 8 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee on June 23.
With new manager Lou Piniella at the helm, though, the Cubs were already in the process of pulling it together. They went 63-46 after June 2 and finished 85-77 to win the NL Central for the first time since 2003.
“The real pressure is getting to the playoffs. And they’ve been through that,” said Piniella, who has also guided Cincinnati and Seattle into the postseason. “I’ve talked to the team a little bit, but I think the experience they’ve gone through is much more beneficial than anything I could say.”
Piniella’s club will be facing another team that experienced a resurgence in 2007. The Diamondbacks were tied for the fifth-worst record in the league last year, but finished an NL-best 90-72 this season.
Arizona was outscored 732-712, and became the first team since the 1906 Chicago White Sox (.246) to have the best record in the league despite the worst batting average (.250).
“In this day and age, I’ve never seen a team like this,” said left fielder Eric Byrnes, who hit .296 with 21 homers and a team-high 50 stolen bases. “This is a group of unselfish guys. They think team first and not as a bunch of individuals. That’s rare today in sports.”
The Diamondbacks are making the fourth playoff appearance in their 10-year history, and first since 2002. They won the World Series in 2001, but no longer have any players on their roster from that team.
Arizona won that championship behind aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, and it again boasts one of the top pitchers in the league in Brandon Webb (18-10, 3.01 ERA), who will oppose Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano (18-13, 3.95) in a marquee matchup Wednesday.
Webb is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and is coming off another impressive regular season, highlighted by an amazing 42-inning scoreless streak. The right-hander had three complete games during the shutout run that began against the Cubs on July 20.
In that game, Webb gave up three runs and five hits in seven innings of a 6-2 loss, but went 10-2 with a 2.43 ERA in his final 13 starts.
Webb is 4-1 with a 2.53 ERA in seven career starts against the Cubs, and 2-0 with a 1.76 ERA in three home starts against them. He finished 8-5 with a 3.17 ERA at Chase Field this season after going 5-1 and 2.42 ERA in his last seven starts there.
In his last outing Friday, Webb gave up two runs in seven innings of a 4-2 win over Colorado as the Diamondbacks clinched the NL West.
Zambrano has had an up-and-down season for the Cubs, but seems to have regained his dominance heading into the playoffs. The right-hander was 5-5 with a 5.62 ERA in his first 12 starts, then went 9-2 with a 1.43 ERA from June 6-Aug. 3, only to post a 9.42 ERA in losing his next five starts.
In his final five starts of the season, though, the right-hander went 4-1 with a 1.67 ERA and didn’t allow a run in his last 13 innings. Zambrano held Cincinnati to six hits and a walk in Friday’s 6-0 win as the Cubs clinched the division.
“I’m ready, I’m excited,” Zambrano told the team’s official Web site. “After I went to the playoffs in ’03, I got thirsty and hungry for that first game. Now that I have more experience in the big leagues, I’m ready for the playoffs.”
In three postseason starts in 2003, Zambrano went 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA. He was just 22 years old then, but is now the staff ace and an emotional leader of the team.
The Cubs should feel confident in having Zambrano start Game 1 on the road, where he’s 12-4 with a 3.06 ERA in 17 starts. He won all three of his September starts away from Wrigley Field, allowing two runs in 21 innings.
Zambrano has only faced the Diamondbacks at Chase Field, and has not pitched against them since 2005. In four career starts against Arizona, he’s 1-2 with a 4.88 ERA.