Breakdown: Cubs vs. Dodgers

By Dave Fultz

Wednesday marks the start of the 2008 playoffs, and more importantly for Cubs fans, their team’s first game in its best-of-five showdown with the Dodgers.

Neither Chicago nor Los Angeles made it out of the NLDS in their last playoff appearance, and both feel like they’ve got a team that can do just that this October. The Cubs have been the best team in the league all season, and the Dodgers came out on top of a weak NL West.

Let’s break down this matchup to see which team has the advantage.

Lineup

It seems the national media have consistently cited the acquisition of Manny Ramirez as the reason for the Dodgers’ resurgence this season. However, that isn’t the case. While the L.A. lineup has been better since Ramirez’s arrival, it is more of a testament to the level of the opponents the Dodgers have played down the stretch. They’ve outscored their opponents 135-86 in September, but that was against teams like San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Colorado, who have been out of playoff contention since mid-August. L.A. hasn’t played a playoff team in six weeks. Their last battle ended when the Phillies swept them in four games.

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    The Cubs, on the other hand, have the best lineup by far of any team in the NL postseason picture. They lead the league in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. If they platoon Reed Johnson, who hits lefties well, with Kosuke Fukudome, they won’t have any major holes against left- or right-handed pitching.

    Chicago’s lineup can challenge a staff ace and punish most back-end starters, which gives them a huge advantage in a series of any length.

    Starting Rotation

    This is where the series gets really interesting because these teams finished one and two in the league in starters’ ERA. The Cubs came out on top, but don’t look past this Dodgers rotation, because it’s filled with talent.

    The Cubs’ one-two punch of Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden are as good or better than any pitcher on the Dodgers staff when healthy. But that has been a concern lately. Zambrano came back from injury to no-hit the Astros in Milwaukee, and then was knocked around a bit in his next start. Meanwhile, Harden has shown both flashes of brilliance and fragility since coming over to Chicago from the AL.

    The Dodgers boast a strong one-two punch of their own with Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley, but have health issues too, as staff ace Brad Penny has been injured. The real difference between these two teams is their back-end starters.

    Chicago has Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly, each of whom could be a number one or two starter on another team, while Los Angeles has Japanese rookie Hiroki Kuroda and either a young Clayton Kershaw or an aging Greg Maddux to fill out its rotation. This should be a closely contested, low-scoring series because of the fantastic pitching on both sides, and if anything, I only give a slight advantage to the Cubs here.

    Bullpen/Bench

    Both teams have had good bullpens this year, but the Dodgers boasted the second-best ERA among relievers in the league.

    The Dodgers weakness comes, again, from a lack of depth due to health concerns. Lefty reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who has a 2.14 ERA this year, will not pitch in the series due to numbness in his pitching hand. Closer Takashi Saito also missed time because of injury this year, and he hasn’t pitched as well since returning.

    Chicago’s weakness is in middle relief, as it hasn’t been able to find a reliable bridge from its starters to Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood to close out games. If you look at the numbers, Wood and Marmol have both been outstanding this year, and former Notre Dame wideout Jeff Samardzija has been solid, posting a 2.28 ERA since being called up from the minors.

    Even with the Dodgers health concerns, I’d still give them a slight edge in the bullpen and the bench would be a push.

    The Dodgers bench does have several attractive veteran options like Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent, while the Cubs make up what they lack in experience with the skill and versatility of players like Johnson and Mike Fontenot.

    The quality of pitching on both sides is fantastic, and therefore neither team should run away with any given game.

    Still, I see the Cubs taking this series because the strength, depth and patience of their lineup has been able to wear down even the best pitchers in the league this season.

    Either way, I can’t wait until the first postseason pitch Wednesday evening. Nothing is better than October baseball.

    Dave Fultz is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected].