I was in the Nordstrom’s at Old Orchard on Tuesday when I came across something that seemed out of place. Tucked in with the Lacoste shirts and the Lucky Brand jeans was a rack of Chicago Cubs t-shirts. In the same glitzy, Norshore mall that Linday Lohan and company mentioned in Mean Girls, Cubs gear was now haute couture.
Yes, the city is more than ready for the Cubs playoff run. Hell, the city made ordinances banning alcohol sales in Wrigleyville bars after the seventh inning of Cubs’ games in anticipation of raucous victory celebrations. And there is valid reason for all this excitement.
For starters, the Cubs are without a doubt the best team–on paper–in the National League. They have three starters, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Ted Lily , that are all capable of shutting down even the most potent of offenses. With Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, the Cubs have the best offense of any of the four National League playoff teams. They scored 100 more runs this season than their first round opponent, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the bullpen, Kerry Wood has converted 34 of 40 saves and has struck out 84 batters in just 66.1 innings while reliever Carlos Marmol has a 2.68 ERA. The Wood-Marmol combination may the best one-two bullpen punch since John Weteland and Mariano Rivera pitched in the Yankees’ 1996 bullpen.
The other three National League teams, in contrast, have their share of problems. The Brewers bullpen sucks. Their closer, Salomon Torres, posted an 8.53 ERA in September and had just two saves the whole month. And, the idea of setup man Eric Gagne being forced to hold any lead at all in a pressure situation is sure to leave any Brewers fan nervously downing Italian sausages by the dozens.
The Phillies’ problem is that with the exception of Chase Utley their stars have struggled to find consistency. Former M.V.P. Jimmy Rollins hit just 11 home runs and was consistently booed by the forgiving Phillies’ faithful. Ryan Howard, another former M.V.P., batted a mere .251 and struck out more than a drunk fratboy in an intramural wiffleball game. Slugger Pat Burrell, who had an All-Star first half, went ice cold in the second half, hitting .215. If Rollins, Howard and Burrell do what they are capable of, the Phillies are a championship contending baseball team. If not, as has been the case much of the season, the Phillies are an average ball club at best and pose no real threat to the Cubbies.
If I were a Cubs fan, the Dodgers would scare me a little. They have a hitter, Manny Ramirez, a starter, Derek Lowe, and a manager, Joe Torre, that all normally rise to the occasion in October. But, LA is also a flawed team. Their offense is weak compared to Chicago: Only two players in the lineup not named Manny (Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp) have more than 15 home runs. Even awful teams like the Pirates and Padres hit more homers than the Dodgers this year. This would not be a problem if LA could manufacture runs but they struggle with that as well. Only six teams in all of baseball, the A’s, Mariners, Nationals, Padres, Giants and Royals, scored less runs than the Dodgers.
More importantly than their advantage on paper, the Cubbies seem to just have it this year. In 2004, the Red Sox proved they were special when, during a regular season game, they came back from a 9-4 deficit against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees. The Cubs have had dozens of games where they showed something special. These include games like the night Aramis Ramirez hit a grand slam in the eighth to give Chicago a 6-4 lead over the Phillies after being down 4-1, or the game at Miller Park when Carlos Zambrano pitched a no-hitter against the Astros, or the afternoon game when the Cubbies beat Milwaukee even though they were losing 6-2 with two outs and nobody on in the ninth. It is hard to claim that there is nothing special about this team.
Of course, disaster could always happen. A black cat could always run across the field. A man wearing a headset could interfere and keep an at bat alive. A shortstop could always let a sure double play ball skip under his glove and into the outfield. However, I don’t see those things happening, not this time, not to this team. Windy City, get ready, the Cubs are going to win the National League.