I can't believe it.
I can't believe the Chicago Cubs will begin this postseason in the eyes of many sports fans as the favorites to make the World Series from the National League.
It's one thing to call the Cubs the best team in the National League, which at least in the eyes of this author, is simply fact. As they enter the postseason, the Cubs' only real "glaring weakness" is the issue of getting the ball from their starting pitchers (two of which are All-Stars) to their set-up man and closer (another pair of All-Stars themselves).
It's another thing to expect the Cubs to be in the World Series.
I mean, really? You're really going to ignore 63 years of failure? You're going to let ninety-something wins make you forget about years like 1969, and 1984, and 2003?
Yes, the Cubs are really, really good. But it's easy for many of these same sports fans, who have forgotten about things like Santo's black cat or the real perpetrator in 2003 (Alex Gonzalez, NOT Steve Bartman) to ignore the fact that facing these Cubs in each postseason series on the way there will be other really, really good teams.
Let's not look past the first of those teams, which as of today stands to be the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It's easy to guess what everyone will be saying about this LA team as the postseason begins. To put it one way, if the National League Division Series were to air on that station they used to call the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, guys like Chris Berman would quite literally be constantly talking about one man in particular from the Dodgers' roster.
Manny Ramirez will almost certainly get all the attention of the press--he's the one name anybody knows from LA's team. What's interesting is the similar proportion of attention he's been getting from opposing managers while at the plate.
More often than any other player on the team, managers are refusing to pitch to Manny, and challenging other Dodger hitters to beat them instead. In 226 total plate appearances for the Dodgers thus far, Manny has been intentionally walked sixteen times. That's twice the number of intentional passes received by the next likely starter in their lineup, catcher Russell Martin—in roughly one-third the number of plate appearances. Martin has been intentionally passed only eight times in more than 640 plate appearances.
This statistic reflects what appears to be the dominant strategy in silencing the Dodger offense: don't let Manny beat you. Against a team that, on the season, ranks 12th in the National League in runs scored (and 3rd in their own division, arguably the worst in baseball, for that matter), this approach seems like it should work.
In stark contrast, the Cubs lead the National League in runs scored with 847. That's a difference of 150 runs scored on the season between these two teams.
The Dodgers' strength, however, is in their pitching and defense. They lead the National League in runs allowed, having only given up 644 on the year. The second place team in that respect?
The Chicago Cubs.
Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano both held the Dodger offense to one run while hosting the regular season series back in May. Those two are currently in line to start Games 1 and 2 of this NLDS in Chicago. Expect similarly low-scoring games in this series, with walks being a central issue to victory.
If the Cubs can draw the free pass and stretch out the opposing starter, and if Carlos Zambrano can limit his tendency to issue those free passes, the Cubs should be able to take this series and advance to the next round.
Perhaps then we'll talk about things like goats and what other things that have happened since the end of World War II—but not yet.
This 2008 NLDS Preview continues with an in-depth look at both teams' pitching staffs here, at the Bleacher Report.