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Aces open battle between underdogs

Aces open battle between underdogs

PHOENIX -- This appears to be some sort of historical rarity. Both teams are underdogs.

Oh, there must be a betting favorite between the Chicago Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks. But that's not what we're talking about. People who plan to pay their bills do not bet on baseball.

When Cubs manager Lou Piniella was informed on Tuesday that his team was the favorite in this National League Division Series, he responded: "I didn't even know that." This was actually the only correct answer.

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On the surface, the D-backs would be the logical favorites. They led the National League in victories with 90. The Cubs won 85. The teams played head-to-head six times during the regular season. Arizona won four. The Diamondbacks have the coveted home-field advantage.

All of these basic numbers would point in the Diamondbacks' favor. And for people who have been paying attention for any portion of the last 99 years, the Cubs' history says they should be regarded as anything but favorites at this time of year.

No, these current Cubs don't have anything to do with those past shortcomings. But at the first sign of postseason difficulty, they will be reminded early and often of the historical baggage that they have inherited. From the historical standpoint, the Cubs define the term "underdog."

So why aren't the D-backs favored? The honest answer is: Nobody has heard of many of them. Sure, the knowledgeable baseball public is aware of the identity of these players, but to the general public, the young Arizona players are whispers in the wind. The Cubs have the name recognition, the household names. The D-backs have Brandon Webb and the kids. This is OK with them.

"It seems like no matter what we've done this year, we've been kind of the underdog, so that's nothing new for us," said Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin. "I think people thought that we were going to go away as the season went along.

"The deeper we got and the closer we got to the finish line, I think there was a lot of speculation that the team was going to roll under, and it didn't. So it's just something we have to deal with every day. We're not opposed to being the underdog."

There will be no underdogs on the mound starting Game 1 at Chase Field on Wednesday night. Certifiable aces will go for both clubs, 2006 Cy Young Award winner Webb for the D-backs and Carlos Zambrano for the Cubs.

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With the Cubs at bat, the choices are obvious. The Cubs want to knock the ball out of the park. Webb, with the power sinker, wants them to hit the ball on the ground.

"Getting most of them to hit the ball down on the ground is pretty much my game plan with everybody," Webb said.

"You've got to make him bring the ball up," said Piniella. "That's easier said than done."

With Zambrano, the tangible stuff is undisputed. The question with him is whether the very competitive drive that makes him a top-shelf pitcher will spill over in these heightened circumstances into a performance that will be overly emotional.

Zambrano says no to that possibility for the postseason opener. He does not want to be too pumped up, too jacked up, too excited. "It's all up here," he said pointing to his head, adding, "not here," while pointing to his heart.

"I want to let the moment come," Zambrano said. "It's like [pitching coach] Larry Rothschild says: 'Let the ball come out of your hand and let it happen.'"

That's there in the "easier said than done" category, too, but the performance of these aces will go a long way toward determining the direction of this series.

But that still leaves the question of which team ought to be regarded as the favorite as this series opens.

"Every year there's a lot of teams that are favorites, but they don't go anywhere," Zambrano said. "If they play good, they can beat us. If we play good, we can beat them."

That about as succinct a summary as this situation requires. Two prominent schools of thought regarding this series are that the Diamondbacks are simply too young, too unexpected, too far over their heads to win in the postseason. And the Cubs are, well, the Cubs, and also cannot be confused with a potential October juggernaut.

If you combine these views, neither team can win this series. In fact, the young Diamondbacks already dealt with considerable pressure just to secure a division title. They should not be dismissed. And this Cubs team is actually a veteran squad with plenty of talent and accomplished players, a team that does not deserve to be diminished by historical guilt by association.

If this series lacks the all-powerful symbolism of a team heavily favored by both the bettors and history, too bad. It doesn't actually need one. We'll find out who is whom starting on Wednesday night, in the time-honored fashion.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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