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Dodgers-Cubs worthy of prime time

Dodgers-Cubs worthy of prime time

CHICAGO -- Baseball's brightest lights have shone on the American League in recent years, but it's hard for even the best of the Junior Circuit to top the wattage of this week's National League Division Series between the Cubs and the Dodgers.

It's National League royalty, a franchise with 18 World Series trips, against the famously tortured history of what is likely the league's most nationally beloved team. It's Manny Ramirez and Joe Torre against Carlos Zambrano and Lou Piniella.

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It's no wonder that all of these games will be played in prime time. Even the ballparks are famous: historic Wrigley Field and picturesque Dodger Stadium -- or is that picturesque Wrigley Field and historic Dodger Stadium?

"This is going to be a tremendous baseball atmosphere," said Derek Lowe, the Dodgers' starter for Wednesday's Game 1. "But, there's no words I can say, there's no words anybody can say how to deal with it. I believe you kind of learn on the job, and we'll find out a lot about these guys in the next week, and I think it's all going to be positive."

Each team sends a ground-balling right-hander to the mound in Game 1, with Ryan Dempster countering Lowe. Each will go with its most dominant pitcher later in the series. Chad Billingsley will start for the Dodgers in Game 2 against Carlos Zambrano, with Rich Harden pitching Game 3 for the Cubs against Hiroki Kuroda.

Los Angeles led the NL in ERA, but in a short series, the Cubs can at least match up on the mound.

"If we would've faced the Mets, you would potentially get Johan [Santana] twice," Cubs infielder Mark DeRosa said. "If we faced the Brewers, we'd have to face CC Sabathia. Every team is going to present challenges. I try to look at it as what challenges we present to the opposition."

When these two teams met for seven games in May and June, the Cubs won five times -- despite playing four of the seven contests at Dodger Stadium. But few teams anywhere in baseball have undergone a more drastic makeover than Torre's club.

Only four of the eight hitters from Los Angeles' lineup for the first meeting will start on Wednesday: Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, Matt Kemp and Blake DeWitt. The Dodgers have, of course, added Manny Ramirez since then, but they also brought in Casey Blake. They've increased the profile of James Loney, and they've regained the services of Rafael Furcal.

Torre's team finished 13th in the National League in runs scored, but the actual quality of its lineup for this series is quite certainly a lot better than that.

"They're a lot different than when we played them earlier in the year," Piniella said. "You know, you add a Manny Ramirez bat to the middle of that lineup, you add Blake with experience at the corner, and you add a Greg Maddux to an already pretty darned good pitching staff, and you're going to have a much different look and a much more potent look. At the same time, Furcal, it seems like he's gotten back into the fray here at the right time."

Not that the Cubs haven't gotten better, too. Their big addition, however, came on the other side of things: right-hander Harden, who can dominate a game like few pitchers in either league. And as compared to a year ago, when the Cubs were swept in the Division Series by Arizona, they've seen even more changes.

"I think we're a completely different team," DeRosa said. "Dempster going into the rotation has solidified the rotation. Adding Rich Harden at the Deadline is a huge lift for us. Reed Johnson, Jim Edmonds -- there've been a lot of new faces who have changed our play on the field but also the character in this clubhouse. I think overall we're a lot different team than last year."

So while there's familiarity here, there's also plenty of intrigue.

"You can ask any hitter over there what am I going to throw; they can tell you, and vice versa," Lowe said. "I know what they're going to do. I think that's the beauty of the playoffs. It comes down to maybe making that adjustment on the fly or kind of seeing something both ways. But at this stage, there are no secrets. It comes down to execution, and who does it better will ultimately win."

Matthew Leach 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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