Three days away…Wrigley Field…Game 1, NLDS.
161 regular season games, full of exciting drama, big hits, breakthroughs, milestones, career-best seasons and a long list of other highlights in this 2/3’s of the 2008 Cubs’ season.
In the first third, Spring Training, the organization found itself coming off a successful run at a division championship the year before, which was unfortunately followed up by a not so successful sweep in the first round of the playoffs by Arizona. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. No one in the front office, the dugout, or the bleacher seats thought the Cubs were built to be swept in the NLDS. But that is exactly what happened and for an organization short on opportunities to claim another World Series title, one that they’d waited for nearly a century to obtain, everyone in the front office knew that there were some serious decisions that needed to be made. These decisions made up a huge chunk of a dramatic offseason and a Spring that included four key storylines: the rotation, the closer, the outfield and the “second baseman”.
Come Spring Training one the key issues was figuring out who our five starters were going to be when the games counted starting March 31st. And there was a great battle to figure out who those five would be. Some guys came out of the gates quickly to prove themselves to Piniella and company and stayed the course. Ohers had an up and down Spring and some were a huge disappointment. Z and LIlly were no-brainers, but the rest were up in the air. Would the old favorite Lieber make the squad? What about Marquis? Can he even bring anything worthwhile to the table this year? Or what about Dempster? Should we really consider our closer, Ryan Dempster as a starter this year? It would make room for Wood to potentially become the closer if the organization so chose. All very important question that were being bounced around the clubhouse, media and fan base. In the end, Zambrano and Lilly were teamed up with Dempster, Marquis and Rich Hill.
Come the regular season, Zambrano and Lilly were pretty much what you’d expect but Dempster was amazing at home. One of the greatest home field pitchers in the game developed in Dempster as he became a guy to truly challenge Z for the ace role, especially when you’re talking consistency and reliability at Wrigley. Hill faded fast as it became more painful for fans to watch him and thankfully, the organization found a way to land one of baseball’s greatest steals, in a trade for Rich Harden. This group would become one of the best rotations in baseball by season’s end.
The closer situation was interesting from Spring on as well. Simply making such a huge decision as taking your closer and bringing him into a starter role, one he hadn’t held in years is news enough. But to have a competition in Spring to see who would replace him…and to add to it that one of the contenders is fan-favorite, uber-talented yet often-injured Kerry Wood, made it one of the biggest stories of the Spring, spilling into the regular season. The trio of Howry, Marmol and Wood pushed each other all Spring for the job. The organization seemed to be hoping, pulling, pushing for Wood to grab the job as they gave him many opportunities to step up and grab it, even one instance where after an injury they figured well let’s just see if he can successfully pitch two days in a row and that will pretty much seal the deal. Two days in a row? I was thinking we’re going to need our closer a lot more than two days in a row (hopefully). Maybe that wasn’t the best final test to give him the job. I always wanted Marmol to land the job as I thought he had had the best Spring. As it turned out, the job did go to Wood and he had an All-Star season with the ninth inning all his, one of the best in the game. And the eighth belonged to Marmol. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful late inning duo as they proved to be a key element to the Cubs clinching the Central for a second straight season.
And of course, you need great position players to back these pitchers up, right? So then what to do about the outfield? Aside from Soriano, nobody was a lock to land an outfield job with the Cubs. Ok, maybe Fukudome. But no one had ever seen him perform in a MLB game. Sure, the Cubs had scouted him in some of the greatest international baseball there is, but still…he hadn’t faced MLB pitching on a regular basis. While Fukudome was a pick up that excited millions of Cubs fans at the time, including myself, he was still an unproven (and expensive) commodity. A virtual unknown. He ended up with the right field gig and came out with a bang, hitting a double in his first MLB at-bat and then with a game tying three-un home run in the bottom of the ninth at Wrigley against the Brewers on Opening Day. While his regular season’s first half made him a legitimate All-Star, for some reason the second half of the season saw Fukudome struggle his way to less playing time and even some time on the bench. Pickups like Jim Edmonds (the most unlikely I’d say…he was a CARDINAL) and Reed Johnson proved to be huge difference makers in the outfield and the Cubs were able to send young, full of potential center fielder Pie to the minors for the Summer until late season call-ups. It gave the organization a great record of wise decisions up front and then smooth strategic dealing when it was needed.
And of course, the second baseman. Rumors, rumors, rumors. Brian Roberts. Mark DeRosa. Mark DeRosa, Brian Roberts. Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Uma. Letterman’s joke went over like a fart in church (don’t think I like this analogy actually…I’ve heard people fart in church and it is rather funny) and who knows how this trade would have ended up in the Cubs Win/Loss columns. Roberts would have lead off and although Soriano struggled here and there throughout the season, he ended up being an All-Star and a huge offensive catalyst for us. DeRosa is more valuable a player than Roberts will ever be. The things DeRosa does on the field and the amount of positions the guy can play….this team would not be where it is right now if it wasn’t for Mark DeRosa. Thought I’d be okay with a trade in the Spring….really glad it didn’t happen looking back.
Which brings us, to looking forward. On Wednesday, Game 1 of the NLDS kicks off. Ryan Dempster, closer converted to starter with 17 wins this year will be on the mound, in the stadium where he dominated all year for the Cubs. We’ll get the Dodgers first up and I think this is going to be one amazing series. Joe Torre’s first post season with the Dodgers, alongside his former nemesis, Manny Ramirez. The Dodgers are going to be a huge challenge for the Cubs and it’s going to come down to more of what got them here. Great pitching, great management, great decisions…in fact, next to all of those ‘great’s, you can also include ‘timely’. We find a way to continue our great and timely everything that we’ve managed to come up with in the Spring and Summer, then the last third of this season, the Fall could be a classic, in more ways than one. GO CUBS GO!!!