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Dempster's come long way to Game 1

Dempster's come long way to Game 1

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CHICAGO -- He's the ringleader and the Pied Piper, the guy who makes the long season fun for his teammates, who looks out for others and knows when it's time to get serious.

Ryan Dempster has gone from starter to Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery to closer to starter again, and on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. CT on TBS, the right-hander will take the mound for the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

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Dempster, who finished with a team-leading 17 wins after spending three seasons as the Cubs closer, got the nod against the Dodgers.

"It's been a fun year," Dempster said. "I'm hoping to be pitching late into October sometime, maybe right before Halloween. That would be kind of cool."

Dempster's 14 wins at home helped sway Lou Piniella's decision.

"[Dempster] deserves it," Piniella said. "He's 14-3 at home, he's won more games than any [of the other Cubs] pitchers at home. He's been extremely consistent and reliable all season long."

The start will give Dempster a chance to take another step in fulfilling his Spring Training prophecy. Before pitchers and catchers reported, he predicted the Cubs would win the World Series. It was a brash statement and challenged in good-natured kidding by his former teammate Kevin Millar, but it wasn't as outrageous as some made it seem. To Dempster, it was natural.

"It's funny when people make predictions and say things, and people say, 'How can you say that?'" Dempster said back in February. "Enough of the [nonsense], the curse this, the curse that, the goat this, the black cat, the 100 years, whatever it is. We're a better team than we were last year, I truly believe, and last year we made it to the playoffs and it was a battle to make it. I just feel our chances are better.

"It's not just going to happen, it's not a gimme. We have to work our tails off to do it. I like our team and I like where we're at. I truly believe the guys in there want it as much as anything."

Dempster and the Cubs have been motivated this year to improve upon last year's three-and-out finish in the NLDS against Arizona. But Dempster's mission is more personal. He was a starter with the Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, winning 15 games in 2001. He underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in August 2003 and signed with the Cubs as a free agent in January 2004. That year, a comeback year, he appeared in 23 games, all in relief.

The next season, he was tabbed the closer and finished with 33 saves in 2005, 24 in '06 and 28 last year. After that season ended, Dempster was told he'd be given a chance to start again and he devoted himself in the offseason.

"He's a bulldog," reliever Michael Wuertz said of Dempster. "I worked out with him for three, four weeks before Spring Training and he got after it every day. We'd drive to the field every day and go work out, and he had that mission in his mind that this was going to be a year not only for him personally but for us as a team. He's had that mindset all year. I think that's helped him all year."

As Piniella says, Dempster wasn't given a spot in the rotation. He earned it.

"Obviously, him being a starter before has helped, but he's also gotten older, more experienced," Wuertz said. "His last year starting was 2003, and this is five years later and that helps everybody. The older you get, the smarter you get.

"Like he said, you try to limit damage in innings, and he's done that all year," Wuertz said. "He's a competitor. You see him when he's locked in -- if you see him walk fast off the mound, it means he's pretty ticked off. If he gives up a run he shouldn't have given up or makes a bad pitch, he'll walk in pretty fast. He takes it seriously. In his four days he works hard, but he has fun. It's a good thing to see. If you look at all the starting pitchers, it's the same way."

Dempster, by the numbers
Here is how Cubs Game 1 starter Ryan Dempster has fared at home, on the road, against the Dodgers and in the postseason:
Home, 2008: 14-3, 2.86 ERA, 20 starts
Road, 2008: 3-3, 3.13 ERA, 13 starts
vs. Dodgers, 2008: 1-0, 2.92 ERA, two starts
vs. Dodgers, career: 4-3, 3.01 ERA, six saves, 19 games/nine starts
Postseason, career: 0-0, 0.00 ERA in one NLDS game, 2007
Did You Know? Dempster and Kerry Wood are the only Cubs pitchers who have had 30 saves and 30 starts in single seasons.

This year, Dempster has totaled 200 innings for the first time since 2001 and he leads the team in strikeouts. Check the NL leaders, and he ranks among the league's elite in ERA, wins, strikeouts, opponents' batting average against, and winning percentage.

"It was obvious when he came to Spring Training that he was up to the challenge," Piniella said. "He was in great shape, he had a fantastic frame of mind. He worked hard in Spring Training to earn a spot in the rotation. It wasn't given. He became our third starter, and I think he's going to be our biggest winner. ... It says a lot for his work ethic and basically his competitiveness and his stuff."

He's also the type of guy you'd want to sit and have a beer with. Dempster established a ticket program at Wrigley Field, and on Mother's Day, treated families whose moms were overseas in the military to a ballgame. He can do a dead-on Harry Caray impersonation, keep 'em laughing at improv comedy clubs and coordinate the rookies' outfits for the annual hazing ritual. And he throws strikes.

In his last start at Wrigley Field in the regular-season home finale on Sept. 21, Dempster notched his 14th win at home, the most by a Cubs pitcher since Fergie Jenkins won a franchise-leading 15 in 1967.

"Things have gone probably better than a lot of people expected," Dempster said. "Wins and losses, sometimes they don't really make up the whole story. It's great to have those kind of numbers and that kind of success, but more importantly, I'm glad I've been healthy and able to go out there every fifth day and the team knows I'm prepared and giving them a chance to win."

There is one downside to Dempster's successful conversion: The Cubs relievers miss the jovial right-hander and his humor in the bullpen.

"He kept things pretty loose," Wuertz said. "Obviously, down there now we have a pretty serious bunch of guys. It's been weird not having him down there cracking jokes. Obviously, he's found a good home now."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["division_series" ] }
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