More than just their play on the field is standing in the way of the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series. They also have the burden of trying to end 99 years of futility.
The defending NL Central champions begin the 100th anniversary season of their last World Series title when they face the Milwaukee Brewers on Monday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
Never before has the pressure to win it all been so pronounced for one of baseball’s most storied, yet unproductive, organizations which has gone without a World Series championship longer than any current major league team.
Chicago last won a title in 1908, and hasn’t reached the World Series since 1945. Manager Lou Piniella, however, wants to focus on the present, not the past, as he begins his second season guiding the club.
“Don’t put the load of 99 years of not winning on you,” Piniella said. “Worry about this year only.”
Last season, Chicago’s 85-77 record was enough to win the weak NL Central by two games over Milwaukee, which blew an 8 1/2-game lead in late June to finish 83-79.
Despite being swept by Arizona in the divisional series, the Cubs are the likely favorites to repeat as division champions for the first time ever.
“It’s time to go,” said Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who hit .299 with 33 homers last season, his first with Chicago.
For the first time since 2001, the Cubs are opening at home. They’ll have most of their lineup from 2007 in place, with the only major difference being the major league debut of right fielder Kosuke Fukodome.
Fukodome, who hit .305 in nine seasons with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons, was one of the most sought after free agents during the winter. After signing a $48 million, four-year contract he’ll try to follow in the success of fellow Japanese imports Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.
Soriano looks to improve after driving in 70 runs last season, where he missed most of August with a strained right quadriceps.
Lee had just 22 homers, but hit .317 and won his third Gold Glove Award at first base. Ramirez, meanwhile, drove in 101 runs, but failed to reach the 30-homer mark for the first time in four seasons.
“I think we’ve got a lot of guys who can hit in a lot of different spots,” leadoff hitter Ryan Theriot said. “The fact of the matter is we’ve got dangerous bats in the lineup.”
With Ryan Dempster now part of the starting rotation, former ace Kerry Wood is the closer. Bobby Howry and Carlos Marmol return to anchor a bullpen whose 3.76 ERA was third-best in the NL last season.
Carlos Zambrano opens on the mound Monday for the Cubs, whose staff led the majors with 1,211 strikeouts in 2007. Zambrano, who finished 18-13 with a 3.95 ERA, is 0-1 with an 8.16 ERA in his past three openers.
Inconsistent throughout 2007, Zambrano has slimmed down and appears ready to make a difference early for a team that will play 16 of its first 27 games at home.
“We want him to step up the first game of the season,” catcher Henry Blanco said. “He’s going to set the tone for everybody.”
The feisty right-hander, who set a career high for wins in 2007, is 9-8 with a 4.21 ERA against Milwaukee. He was 2-1 in four starts versus the Brewers last season.
Chicago went 9-6 against the Brewers in 2007, winning five of nine meetings at Wrigley Field.
“That’s a big opening day,” Milwaukee reliever Derrick Turnbow told the team’s official Web site. “It’s going to be a playoff game right off the bat, a good test for us.”
Despite its late collapse, Milwaukee is coming off its first winning season since 1992 and still boasts one of the majors most potent lineups.
Prince Fielder led the NL with a franchise-best 50 homers and Ryan Braun, who will move from third base to left field after committing 26 errors, was the league’s Rookie of the Year after hitting .324 with 34 home runs in 113 games.
While the Brewers led the majors with a club-record 231 home runs, their bullpen played a big role in the team’s late-season struggles, going 36-46 with a 4.66 ERA in the final three months.
“It’s a totally new bullpen,” manager Ned Yost said. “I think if you go over most teams, when they rebuild a portion of their team, it’s always the bullpen.”
Gagne, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract, had 16 saves in 34 games with Texas last season before being traded to Boston, where he posted a 6.75 ERA in 20 appearances.
Ben Sheets will make his sixth opening day start, looking to improve to 4-0 in openers. The right-hander went 12-5 with a 3.82 ERA last season, but made just 24 starts because of finger and hamstring injuries.
“It’s still a rush (to pitch on opening day),” said Sheets, who is 9-7 with a 3.87 ERA versus Chicago and went 2-1 with a 2.65 ERA at Wrigley Field in 2007.