The Cubs head into the postseason with a leadoff batter many think should hit fifth, a closer few outside of the organization believe in, a sputtering offense, their sixth catcher, and a hyper-emotional ace.
Despite all that -- as well as being nine games under .500 on June 2 -- the 2007 Cubs will try to end a 99-year drought and win the World Series.
The Diamondbacks took the season series against the Cubs, 4-2, and lead 42-28 lifetime. Jason Marquis notched the only win in Arizona's trip to Wrigley, giving up two runs on four hits over 7 2/3 innings on July 20. That win, a 6-2 decision, gave the Cubs a 7-1 record after the All-Star break.
Derrek Lee missed that series to serve a five-game suspension for the dustup with San Diego's Chris Young. In the rematch in Phoenix, Sean Marshall notched the only win on Aug. 24.
The Cubs had to rally to win the NL Central, clinching on Friday with a combo 6-0 win over the Reds and the Brewers' 6-3 loss to the Padres. In an hour, the magic number went from one to none, and the Cubs had gone from last in the National League in 2006 to first in the division in '07.
Since the NL Central came into existence in 1994, there has never been a team that went from last to first the next year. In 2006, the Cubs were dead last in the National League at 66-96. The last NL team to turn the trick was the 1999 Diamondbacks, who finished last in 1998 in the West and won the division the next season.
It's the Cubs' first trip to the postseason since 2003, when they last won the Central, and 15th time in franchise history. That '03 season is only a few years ago -- Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were in the rotation then -- but it just seems longer to the team's faithful fans.
There is no clear-cut MVP on this team.
"We've had players here who have had solid years," Piniella said. "Pitching-wise, we're up there in ERA, we're up there in strikeouts, and offensively, we're in the middle of the pack.
"You look at it, and even though we don't have people in the home run race or the RBI race, we've had good, consistent performances," he said.
Alfonso Soriano was the driving force in September. The $136 million outfielder wasn't able to duplicate his 40-40-40 season of 2006, but he did hit 33 homers, 41 doubles and swiped 19 bases in his first year in Chicago. In the final month, he belted 14 homers, including seven leadoff blasts, and totaled 27 RBIs. He can provide instant offense.
There is a potential for power with Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Cliff Floyd. The Cubs haven't exactly been overpowering on offense, and finished the regular season ranked 11th in home runs. They do head into the playoffs on a power surge, though, after hitting 43 in September.
"We've got as good a chance as anybody else," Piniella said. "We've got a veteran team here, basically, and we've got some pitchers in the rotation who can keep you in ballgames, and we have a strong bullpen to close things out. Really, what it amounts to is how well we hit."
Actually, it means how they hit with runners on third or in clutch situations. That's been a problem this season.
Pitching isn't a problem. The Cubs have relied on Zambrano, Lilly, Rich Hill and Marquis, and those four are penciled in for the NLDS, in that order. All have reached double-digit wins, the first time four starters have done that since 2003, when Prior (18), Matt Clement (14), Wood (14) and Zambrano (13) did so.
The '07 team finished second in the National League in ERA, and the Cubs have not finished that high since 1963. They also led the Major Leagues in strikeouts.
Zambrano, the highly emotional ace of the staff, should benefit with the NLDS beginning on the road. He ranks fifth in the NL in road ERA and was 12-4 away from Wrigley Field.
National League Division Series schedule
|Chicago Cubs vs. Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Wed., Oct. 3||10 p.m.||Chase Field|| TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||10 p.m.||Chase Field || TBS|
|Sat. Oct. 6||6 p.m.||Wrigley Field|| TBS|
|*Sun. Oct. 7||1 p.m.||Wrigley Field|| TNT|
|*Tue. Oct. 9||10 p.m.||Chase Field|| TBS|
|Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies|
|Wed., Oct. 3||3 p.m.|| Citizens Bank Park|| TBS|
|Thu., Oct. 4||3 p.m.|| Citizens Bank Park || TBS|
|Sat. Oct. 6||9:30 p.m.|| Coors Field || TBS|
|*Sun. Oct. 7||10 p.m.|| Coors Field|| TBS|
|*Tue. Oct. 9||6:30 p.m.|| Citizens Bank Park|| TBS|
|* If necessary. All times ET.|
There could be some surprise contributors. Rookie Geovany Soto will be on the playoff roster along with veteran Jason Kendall, who didn't join the team until July 16. Soto has been better at throwing runners out. The MVP of the Pacific Coast League was one of the few players who wasn't called up this season until Sept. 1.
"You need all 25 guys on your roster to chip in, and that's what we've gotten this season, and that's why we've been winning," Lee said.
Ryan Dempster anchors the bullpen, although he's had a tough time convincing Cubs fans he should be the closer. Dempster is 28-for-31 in save situations. He doesn't fare as well in non-save situations, such as Sunday in the regular-season finale, when he served up four runs on four hits in one inning against Cincinnati.
This team has evolved over the season, and Theriot symbolizes Piniella's impact on the team. Veteran Cesar Izturis was projected as the starting shortstop, and Theriot played second and outfield in Spring Training. No shortstop. He impressed Piniella with his ability and energy so much that Piniella told Theriot he'd made the Opening Day 25-man roster in March so the youngster could relax. Then, Piniella found a place for him to play.
Theriot's postseason play has included the College World Series and Minor Leagues. This is different.
"This is it," he said of the big league playoffs. "I don't know of too many kids who dream of playing in the College World Series. I never did. It was always the grand stage, Major Leagues."