Chicago Cubs fans have been down this road before, looking like the team to beat in the National League coming down the final stretch of a season. Many Chicagoans have suffered through the agony and defeat of making it so far, only to lose at the very end. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim enter the postseason representing the American League, and are perennial favorites having won their division the past two years. Unfortunately, for Cubs fans, this road to the postseason leads to a dark and dreary place.
In 2003, all the Cubs needed to do was win games six or seven to advance to the World Series. With stud aces Kerry Wood and Mark Prior taking the hill, all looked well for Chicago.
In game six, they had a 3-0 lead with only five outs to go, when the lovable losers blew it again. This time, however, with a little help from one of their fans. The infamous Steve Bartman reached over into the field of play taking a probable out from the grasp of left fielder Moises Alou. Then Alex Gonzalez made a crucial error at short, and the Florida Marlins went off to an eight-run inning that Cubs fans will never forget.
Game seven did not go any better for the Cubs jumping out to an early lead only to lose the game and the series. Yes, folks, the Cubs were five measly outs away from baseball’s biggest stage, but could not get the job done.
This year, however, the Cubs will be singing a different tune and the loudest singers are the guys in the bullpen. For the Angels, success is imminent, and it will be because of their overall balance and depth. When it comes to playing in October in Major League Baseball, either you have it or you do not. Experts and fans alone tend to believe the team momentum has the best chance to succeed. Others opine that the best overall team with the most depth usually comes out on top.
For each team representing the American League in this year’s postseason bracket (Red Sox, Angles, Rays, White Sox) it will come down to great pitching, timely hitting, and solid defense. The Angles came into the season as a perennial favorite, having won their division last year. They also added Gold-glove outfielder Torri Hunter, while acquiring the ever-reliable Mark Teixeira from the Braves at the trade deadline in July. These moves, along with a strong veteran presence, make them a very dangerous ball club.
For the Cubs, their power arms out of the bullpen will dominate games in the late innings for manager Lou Piniella. It makes sense then why Piniella has always been obsessed with pitchers who can throw near 100 mph. It is a high probability for a strikeout and therefore no freak incidents such as Steve Bartman (currently in hiding, there is a better chance of finding Whitey Bulger than Bartman in October) causing any chance of an error (see Alex Gonzalez game 6).
Strangely enough, there is a familiar face that is getting it done for the Cubs, but this time it’s at the back end of the bullpen. Kerry Wood, 2003 game 7 goat who gave up seven earned runs over 5 1/3 innings, is now the teams closer. Wood has 31 saves in 37 chances, striking out a whopping 77 batters in only 61 innings pitched. The Angels, Conversely, won the World Series in 2002 by beating the San Francisco Giants in 7 games, and they did it with real good pitching, and timely hitting. Their current ace John Lackey was a rookie then and pitched well throughout the playoffs, complementing a very young, talented team. They didn’t have any great power hitters outside of Troy Glaus, but they found a way to put up enough runs to ultimately be crowned champions. Mike Soscia’s teams are extremely aggressive and are willing to take chances. When they get on, they steal bases and wreak havoc on the opposing pitchers.
This year scoring runs will not be a problem; with Teixeira hitting .358 with 13 home runs, 43 RBIs, 39 runs scored and 32 walks in the second half of the season. He becomes a stabilizing force in the middle of their lineup, allowing sluggers like Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson the ability to see more pitches. Then teams could pitch around them, forcing other players to compensate. Now their lineup is more dynamic, which means it will be extremely tough to dominate. In addition, their bullpen might be one of the best in the game, with Francisco Rodriguez breaking the single-season record with 62 saves, and Scott Shields being one of the more consistent middle relievers in the entire league.
For the Cubs, shutdown relievers in the 8th and 9th innings were not enough, so it made it tough for opposing hitters in the 7th inning as well. Former Notre Dame football wide receiver Jeff Samardzija is lighting it up since being called up to the majors on July 26th. His velocity on his fastball has increased every season as a professional baseball player and is now consistently throwing in the high 90’s. He has an electric arm and the potential to rack up huge strie out totals. Samardzija boasts a 2.31 era and looks to see action in big game situations after gaining the trust of Cubs management. Having a dominant bullpen in the playoffs shortens games and allows managers to match up well against opposing line-ups. In 2002, the Angels power arms in their bullpen were a huge part of the team’s success and eventually the reason why they won the World Series. Throwing Scott Shields, Rodriguez, and Troy Percival late in games, allowed manager Mike Soscia to take out struggling starters early.
This year should not be any different, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim having enough pieces to make it to the final series of the year. The Cubbies should follow a similar path to success, ultimately landing them in the championship series against the Angels. Then again, it is the Cubs, and anything could happen.