Playoff preview: Cubs Bullpen
By now everyone who knows sports is aware that it has been a while since the Chicago Cubs hoisted the World Series trophy. As the leaves fall, the temperature drops, and Halloween costumes hit the store shelves there will be baseball games played at Wrigley field. Cub fans around the world believe once again that this is their year. And who can blame them? Their beloved Cubbies have earned the best record in the National league, Home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the best Earned Run Average, On Base Percentage, and run differential. It has been a team effort all year! However, no team can compete and accomplish what the Cubs have without a prominent bullpen. Cubs Manager Lou Piniella knows this as well as anyone, he managed the 1990 World Champion Cincinnati Reds riding the famed "Nasty Boys" to a title. Does he have a reincarnation of that championship formula at Wrigley with guys like Carlos Marmol, Jeff Samardzja, and closer Kerry Wood? The Cubs would like to think so.
Samardzja is the newcomer of the bunch. Since being called up July 25th, he has proven that he has the stuff to be a major league pitcher posting a 1-0 record, 2.33 ERA and 25 strike-outs in only 27 innings. He features a very heavy mid 90's fastball, a sinker and a change-up. Samardzja has shown the mettle to get out of tough situations, the ability to hold a lead and get things to the back of the bullpen. Samardzja can also be extended to pitch multiple innings if necessary, expect him to be the go to guy in the 6th and 7th innings and extra's. He, of course, is known widely for his accomplishments as a all-american wide receiver at the University of Notre Dame. He is trying to change that and will have his chance.
Marmol is a much more known commodity. The side-arm gunslinger has been nothing but lights out since his Cubs debut June 4, 2006. And in 2008 he has taken that to a whole new level. His Strike-out to walk ratio (114-41) is among the best in the league and he is poised to set the single season record for lowest batting average against. He has been the Cubs most used reliever, pitching 86 innings over 80 games. He is the Cubs set up man, featuring an over powering fastball, and a nasty slider. The slider has three variations, a straight version, a slurve, and a sweeping slide that breaks down and away from righties. He has had a few lapses in control throughout the season, primarily when he "fell in love" with his slider and abandoned his fastball, or started overthrowing pitches. But when he is on, he is as close to automatic as it comes. If the Cubs are tied or have a lead in the late innings, Marmol will be on the hill. He can also be extended to pitch 2-3 innings and will be used in a critical role no matter the inning. His versatility and dominance are a huge asset to Lou Piniella and will continue to be in the playoffs.
The last cog to the Windy City pen machine is of course closer Kerry Wood. A starter since his debut in 1998, Wood's injury problems threatened his very promising career. He won the rookie of the year, holds one of only four 20 strikeout games in major league history, and was a prominent starter in the Cubs 2003 playoff run. When he was healthy, he alone gave fans a reason to hope that their team had a chance, problem is he has not been healthy often. Late last season Wood returned to the active roster, but due to longevity concerns he was placed in the bull pen. This season he won the closer job over Marmol and reliever Bob Howry in spring training and the gamble has paid off! His 34 saves in 40 opportunities along with a 5-4 record, 3.31 ERA, and 83 strikeouts in 65.1 innings make him as feared as any closer in the league. He brings to the fray a mid 90's fastball, a hard slider, and on rare occasions a devastating curve ball. Wood, always a fan favorite, has shown the mental toughness to be a closer in the majors, he no doubt has the stuff. His control early in outings tends to set the tone for what to expect, if he struggles hold your breath but if he is dominant early, expect a win!
The 2008 Chicago Cubs have a lot of the right pieces in place to be in the fight when it is all said and done. Is this their year? Well noone knows until the games are played, but if starters Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Ted Lilly along with the other pen mates can get the ball to these three relievers with a lead, Cub fans may finally be able to celebrate something that generations before them could not, a World Series Championship!
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