Cubs vs. Braves: Who's got the edge?
National League team with more effective starters than the Cubs in the regular season. The guys at the front of the Cubs' rotation, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, ended the season strongly. With Wood, scheduled to work Games 1 and 5, and Prior on a roll, the Cubs' starters had a 2.88 ERA in September. This compares with a 3.77 September ERA for the Atlanta trio of Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Greg Maddux, who are likely to make all the starts for the Braves. The health of Carlos Zambrano is an issue, however. He either was injured or out of gas in his last two starts. Matt Clement has battled groin problems but delivered a huge game Saturday. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox has indicated he probably will bypass fourth starter Horacio Ramirez. That's a curious decision, given Ramirez's strong finish (3-0, 2.41 in five September starts) and the horrible record of postseason starters working on three days' rest (3-13, 7.09 in 21 starts over the last four years).
John Smoltz is the big question. If he resembles the guy who went 45-for-49 in save situations with a 1.12 ERA, his experience and guts give the Braves a significant edge. But the feeling here is Atlanta's advantage could be more perception than reality. Smoltz's elbow remains questionable. He worked only four times in September, blowing a save in his final appearance. Setup men Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Gryboski also spent time on the disabled list this season. Cubs closer Joe Borowski remains the club's secret weapon. He quietly converted his final 14 save opportunities, including 10 in September, during which he had a 0.77 ERA. Kyle Farnsworth had 18 strikeouts against only one walk in September, again showing signs of being a top setup man. Veterans Mike Remlinger and Dave Veres also were effective in a busy September.
This is the overwhelming reason Atlanta won 101 games, matching the Yankees for the most victories in the majors. Without adding a significant player, the Braves put together the best offensive season in history. They scored an NL-high 902 runs, shattering the club record, and hit an NL-high 235 homers, 20 more than they ever had hit in a season. Catcher Javy Lopez was the biggest surprise, hitting .327 with 43 homers after averaging .252 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs the previous two years. Along with Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, Lopez gives Atlanta four players with at least 27 homers and 106 RBIs. The Braves also have dangerous table-setters in Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles. Yet the Cubs, who ranked ninth in the NL with 722 runs, actually produced more runs in September, outscoring Atlanta by an average of 5.2-5.0. It was an amazing run, fueled at least as much by Aramis Ramirez, Mark Grudzielanek and Kenny Lofton as Sammy Sosa, who heated up in the final week with five homers and eight RBIs in the last eight games. Even with Atlanta native Corey Patterson on the disabled list, this lineup has more balance than others in the Sosa era.
This is a much deeper group of players than a .157 team pinch-hitting average would suggest. The Cubs will have a potent force available in every game, with Randall Simon and Eric Karros likely to platoon at first base. Ramon Martinez is the kind of veteran who quietly could do something big. Tom Goodwin and Tony Womack bring speed, and backup catcher Paul Bako had his share of big hitsespecially in August and September, when he batted .284 with eight extra-base hits in 74 at-bats. Matt Franco and Julio Franco are the Braves' primary weapons off the bench. Mark DeRosa and Darren Bragg add depth. Atlanta's backup catcher, Henry Blanco, is the least likely player on either team to be used, as Maddux probably will break from his pattern and pitch to Lopez.
The Cubs allowed 13 fewer unearned runs than Atlanta, which ranked 13th in the NL in fielding percentage. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were the only two teams with more errors. Braves shortstop Furcal should be watched closely because he committed a career-high 31 errors. Alex Gonzalez is as steady as any shortstop, committing only 10 errors in 149 games. Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez had 33 errors this season, including many on throws. Gold Glover Andruw Jones gives Atlanta a better defensive outfield. Damian Miller is a little tougher to run on than Lopez, but both will have the respect of runners attempting to steal.
Cox deserves a world of credit for the Braves' 12 consecutive division titles but hasn't gotten enough out of them in October, when they have gone 58-53 during this run. They have gone 6-14 in the postseason since the Yankees swept them in the 1999 World Series. St. Louis swept them in the first round in 2000, Arizona beat them in five in the championship series in '01 and Dusty Baker's San Francisco Giants took them in five games in the '02 division series. With the exception of the final two games of the 2002 World Series, Baker has been on one of the all-time managerial rolls the last two seasons. Late-game bullpen moves in big games have failed him, including the 2003 All-Star Game, which cost the NL home-field advantage in the World Series.
While they were the last of eight teams to qualify for the playoffs, no team goes in set up better than the Cubs. They gained momentum throughout a 19-7 September and, by virtue of clinching the Central on Saturday, have one of their two aces, Wood (43 innings pitched, 4 earned runs, 26 hits and 58 strikeouts in his last six starts), rested to work Game 1 and a possible Game 5. Overworked 22-year-old Carlos Zambrano, who is expected to start Game 2, is a concern. Even if the Cubs lose the first two games in Atlanta, Mark Prior and Matt Clement give them a decent chance to get a series finale into Wood's hands. Atlanta has developed bad karma in October. The Cubs will get an additional advantage if Cox decides to use Ortiz and Hampton on short rest in a possible Games 4 and 5.
Phil Rogers pick: Cubs in five.