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Surprise? Dodgers can finish off Cubs

Surprise? Dodgers can finish Cubs

CHICAGO -- Game 3 of this National League Division Series beckons with the Los Angeles Dodgers one victory away from the League Championship Series. On the surface this is a surprising development, but perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising.

The Dodgers will send Hiroki Kuroda against the Cubs' Rich Harden on Saturday night in what could be the final game of this series. The question between now and then is why did the first two games not go according to form? And, what did those games tell us about what could happen in the remainder of the series?

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From the Cubs' side, the two losses were both bad and aberrational. "I don't think you can win 97 ballgames playing that way," manager Lou Piniella said. "It wasn't good baseball. In fact, the last two days, they've probably been the two worst games we've played all year from a walking and errors standpoint."

But the other half of it is the distinct possibility that the Dodgers' overall value has been at least somewhat underrated. The conventional wisdom on this series was that the Cubs had the National League's best record, while the Dodgers had the worst record of any postseason qualifier. Therefore, the Cubs were obviously the big favorites.

This superficial analysis does not take into consideration the fact that the Dodgers are a much different club than they were in the first half of the season. The acquisition of Manny Ramirez changed the nature of the Los Angeles lineup, and the acquisition of Casey Blake was another obvious plus.

GAME 3: JUST THE FACTS
Dodger Stadium, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET
Cubs starter: RHP Rich Harden
2008: 10-2, 2.07 ERA (OAK and CHC)
2008 on road: 5-2, 2.50 ERA
2008 vs. Dodgers: No record
Career vs. Dodgers: No record
Career postseason: 1-2, 6.43 ERA
Dodgers starter: RHP Hiroki Kuroda
2008: 9-10, 3.73 ERA
2008 at home: 6-2, 3.68 ERA
2008 vs. Cubs: 1-1, 0.59 ERA
Career vs. Cubs: 1-1, 0.59 ERA
Career postseason: First appearance
Dodgers lead series, 2-0. No team in the Wild Card era has won a National League Division Series after trailing 2-0.
Game 1: Dodgers 7, Cubs 2
Game 2: Dodgers 10, Cubs 3
Did you know? Kuroda will be the fourth Japanese-born pitcher to start a playoff game in Major League history, joining Hideo Nomo, Masato Yoshii and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But beyond those additions, manager Joe Torre has repeatedly stressed the notion that his young hitters, all of whom have indisputable talent, have become more patient, more selective at the plate.

The Dodgers struggled mightily to score at some points early in the season, but they have moved beyond that level.

And they are just fine in the game's most essential component. The Dodgers led the NL in team earned run average. The basic fact of postseason life is that terrific pitching beats even the best lineups. The Cubs led the league in runs scored, but they were neutralized in the first two games of this series by L.A. starters Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley.

This shouldn't have been particularly surprising, either. From Aug. 11 to the end of the regular season, Lowe went 6-1 with a 1.27 ERA in 10 starts. He was as good as any pitcher in baseball. Billingsley, after a difficult start to the season, went 15-6 from May through the end of the season. He is just 24, but he has top-of-the-rotation stuff and makeup.

Public recognition of the Dodgers' potential may be slightly slow on the uptake simply because of the West Coast baseball syndrome. While viewers on the East Coast and in the Midwest are watching the nightly highlights shows, the Dodgers are in the third inning. Eventually, the phenomenal hitting of Ramirez received plenty of publicity. But the development of the rest of the Los Angeles team probably did not get its due recognition, until now, when it is impossible to ignore or slight.

Now, these developing Dodgers have brought the Cubs to the edge of postseason elimination. And they did this in the most difficult venue possible, on the road, at Wrigley Field.

Cubs Down, Not Out
Only once has a club lost the first two games of a Division Series at home and come back win it. The New York Yankees rallied from an 0-2 deficit against the Oakland Athletics in the 2001 ALDS.
GTeamsScoreWPLP
1Oak @ NYL, 5-2MulderClemens
2Oak @ NYL, 2-0HudsonPettitte
3NY @ OakW, 1-0MussinaZito
4NY @ OakW, 9-2HernandezLidle
5Oak @ NYW, 5-3ClemensMulder

The task ahead is not impossible for the Cubs, but history indicates that it is highly improbable. In the history of the expanded playoffs, 16 National League teams have lost the first two games of Division Series. All 16 have subsequently lost the series.

And, only one team, the 2001 New York Yankees, lost the first two games of a Division Series at home, and then went on to win the Division Series. The Yankees lost the first two games to the Oakland Athletics in New York before coming back. Ironically, the Yankees then defeated the Seattle Mariners managed by Piniella in the ALCS, even though the 2001 Mariners had set an American League record with 116 victories.

On the Cubs' side of the argument, as Piniella stated after the Game 2 loss, the Cubs will be starting "a pretty good pitcher" in Game 3, and if they extend the series to Game 4, they will be starting "a darned good pitcher" then.

Those would be Harden, who can be as good as any pitcher in the game when he is on, and Ted Lilly, who pitched superbly down the stretch, recording a career-high 17 victories.

West Side Story
The Cubs have lost all eight of their playoff games played west of Chicago, including six in the state of California. Over that same span in playoff games east of Chicago the Cubs are 4-4.
Playoff Games West of Chicago (0-8):
1984: Lost to Padres in NLCS
Game 3: Padres 7, Cubs 1
Game 4: Padres 7, Cubs 5
Game 5: Padres 6, Cubs 3 (Padres win series 3-1)
1989: Lost to the Giants in NLCS
Game 3: Giants 5, Cubs 4
Game 4: Giants 6, Cubs 4
Game 5: Giants 3, Cubs 2 (Giants win series 4-1)
2007: Lost to D-backs in NLDS
Game 1: D-backs 3, Cubs 1
Game 2: D-backs 8, Cubs 4

But they'll be going against a pitcher who has worked very well against them twice. Kuroda had two starts against the Cubs and was 1-1, but he pitched a shutout against them on June 6, and in the loss, gave up only one earned run. For the two starts, his ERA against Chicago was 0.59. And he was 6-2 with a 3.68 ERA this season at Dodger Stadium.

"I feel very honored to be the third starter, in this important game," Kuroda said on Friday. If he pitches the way he has twice against the Cubs this season, the Dodgers will be honored to have him finish off this series on their behalf.

Overall, the Cubs will be going against a Dodgers team that is significantly better than many alleged experts realized. The Dodgers didn't come to this point with the Cubs' regular-season credentials, which is why they were substantial underdogs. But the Dodgers did arrive in the postseason as a team lifting its level of play at precisely the right time.

The Dodgers' 2-0 lead, putting them on the brink of the NL Championship Series, has shifted the burden of expectations to the former underdogs, the Dodgers. But it is a burden they're happy to bear.

"And now, you know, we're up to two games," Torre said on Friday. "We need to win one more game, and we have to do that. We have to do that. And we're home. Plus, we're supposed to do it. So hopefully my ballclub will go out with the same business-like attitude that we've had the last couple of days. But we certainly will talk about it."

The Dodgers' reality changed dramatically over the space of two nights on Chicago's North Side. Now, they are one step away from proving their point and underscoring the broader recognition that this can be a very good ballclub.

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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