Series Preview: Cubs at Mets
Four years ago this week, one of the best Cub teams of my lifetime stopped for a series in New York en route to what appeared to be their first consecutive post season appearance in almost 100 years. The Cubs were in control of their own destiny, they were looking solid and ready, and then the Mets ripped out their effing hearts and stomped all over them on consecutive days. I saw both of those games in person. The Cubs went 1-7 in their last 8 and miss the playoffs that year.
This year, the pressure is off, although the Cubs will still be taking on the Mets with the intent of beating them into a pulp. In fact, the Cubs are now playing the part of spoilers, as their final 7 games will be against teams that are competing for a spot in the post season.
Personally, I find the whole playoff picture so bloody confusing that it makes me dizzy, so I'll refer instead to the writings of Desipiot TJ, who summed it up like this:
4 vs. Cubs 2-2
3 vs. Marlins 0-3
3 vs. ATL 0-3
3 vs. WAS 0-3
1 @ CIN 1-0
3 @ WASH 3-0
3 @ Mets 3-0
3 vs. PIT 2-1
3 vs. Cubs 1-2
3 vs. CIN 3-0
3 vs. ATL 2-1
1 vs. CUBS 1-0
3 vs. SD 2-1
3 @ SF 0-3
4 @ STL 2-2
3 vs. COL 3-0
I guess anything is possible. Me, I want to see the Mets make the playoffs for one simple reason: wherever they go, ambulances follow. So many Met players are hurt that I don't see them as a serious threat in October. However - you knew there'd be a however, right? - if the Mets are the wild card, they'd play the Cubs in the first round, and I would fear for Ron Santo's health.
Enough pre-amble. Let's get to it:
Monday, September 22nd - Jason Marquis (10-9, 4.39 ERA) vs. Jon Niese (1-0, 4.09 ERA)
Jason Marquis is doing more than simply battling to win more games than he loses in 2008. He's also ... battling for his soul. (Sorry, couldn't help myself). Actually, Marquis is probably on the bubble to be the guy in Lou's post season bullpen who Lou turns to when the Cubs are either winning by 8, or losing by 8, but never in between. He faces stiff competition from Bob Howry for the gig, though.
Jon Niese is a left handed 21-year-old who the Mets are apparently turning to out of desperation. Niese very well might be a respectable starter someday - he's 34-26 in his minor league career with a 3.72 ERA, and in 7 career starts at Triple A, the youngster is 5-1 with a 3.40 ERA. If this was 2004-2007, I'd be worried, because the Cubs historically get killed by lefty starters they've never faced before. But this is '08 and Niese is batting practice.
Tuesday, September 23rd - Rich Harden (10-2, 2.03 ERA) vs. Johan Santana (14-7, 2.65 ERA)
Rich Harden has been exactly as advertised. He's a front-line pitcher with game-changing stuff and a questionable arm. He's also in all likelihood the Cubs #3 starter in the post season. He'll be facing Johan Santana, the Mets ace. It's a tough day for the Mets when their ace pitcher is squaring off in his home park against another team's #3 guy and yet he's the under-dog. But Santana should keep his chin up. Harden is likely to be allowed only 70 or 80 pitches. On some days, he won't get out of the 4th with that much restraint.
Wednesday, September 24th - Carlos Zambrano (14-6, 3.77 ERA) vs. Oliver Perez (10-7, 4.10 ERA)
Oh, Carlos, how you tease us. With you, teams either score 8 or they score 0, there's no middle ground. Consequently, you've got my riddled with jitters.
This is likely the Big Moose's last tune-up start before the playoffs. He's done well when limited to pitch counts in the past - very well, in fact - and I suspect he'll do well this time, too. How well probably will determine if he's the #2 or #1 pitcher in the post season.
Oliver Perez is not exactly a frighteningly good pitcher. However, he'll be a guy with a mission on Wednesday, as the Mets are fighting for a playoff spot. I suspect he'll pitch better than his numbers convey.
Thursday, September 25th - Ted Lilly (16-9, 4.17 ERA) vs. Pedro Martinez (5-6, 5.50 ERA)
Once upon a time, Pedro Martinez was awesome. Lucky for the Cubs, that time is long passed.
Also once upon a time, the Cubs were aching for a reliable left-handed starter. In fact, it was akin to the Santo Curse. Much as the team went three decades between good third basemen, the Cubs also went just as long between talented lefty starters. Lilly has worked on changing that. And, while he probably won't be with the Cubs for more than a few more seasons, he's already done something that we haven't seen since before Nixon resigned from office - he's won 15+ games in back-to-back seasons for the Cubs as a lefty. It sure would be awesome if he finished the year with 17, and it's a strong possibility on Thursday.
Predictions: It could go either way. The Mets are a team with a lot on the line. The Cubs are a team with nothing left to prove.
There's actually a fine balance here. Lou wants to save his starters for the playoffs, and so they will be unlikely to pitch past the 5th. But he also can't be looking to over-use his playoff relievers. I suspect we'll see a lot of non-essential pitchers this series, and that may effect how the Cubs do in the wins column. However, if the Mets press, then Chicago just might bury them right there in Shea.
Considering that the Mets would be Chicago's first round opponent if they won the wild card, I have a feeling that the Cubs will try to set the tone early in the series by pounding on them. At least, that's what I hope will happen. There should be no free rides in baseball, and if New York is going to see the post season, they should have to earn it.
But hey - if they do indeed face Harden, Zambrano, and Lilly, even if in a semi-limited capacity, then it won't be easy. Ultimately, that's all I ask.
Update: Looks like I'm already wrong. The Cubs are moving Harden to Thursday's game, and Sean Marshall will be starting on Tuesday. So, uhm, go Cubs.