(Sports Network) - In case you haven't heard, it has been 100 years since the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series title. Their quest to end the longest drought in baseball history begins with the best-of-five National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field on Wednesday.
Chicago was the NL's best team from start-to-finish this season and captured its second straight NL Central crown with a 97-64 mark. Hopefully, the Cubs postseason experience lasts a little longer than their trip last year when they were swept in three games by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Finishing with the best record in the NL is not always a recipe for success, as the team with the best record has won the World Series only once in the last 22 years (the 1995 Braves). Of course, the Cubs are still searching for their first World Series title since 1908.
Joe Torre's first year in Los Angeles has to be considered a success, as the Dodgers are back in the playoffs following a one-year absence by virtue of winning their first NL West title since 2004 with an 84-78 mark.
Things didn't look good for Torre's crew midway through the season, but the team went out and acquired slugger Manny Ramirez at the trade deadline and never looked back.
At the time of the deal Los Angeles was two games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks and finished the year two games up.
Like the Cubs, Los Angeles' last postseason appearance ended in a sweep, as the Mets took three straight from them in the 2006 NLDS. In fact the Dodgers have just one postseason win since winning the World Series in 1988.
These two storied franchises have never met in the postseason, but Chicago won five of the seven matchups between the clubs this season.
A lot of Chicago's key offensive performers had down years, but the Cubs still have the best and deepest lineup in the National League and led the Senior Circuit with 855 runs scored.
Despite playing in just 109 games, Alfonso Soriano led the Cubs with 29 home runs, while batting .280. He may not be your prototypical leadoff hitter, but he is one of the most feared sluggers in the game.
Soriano, though, has struggled in the postseason. In his last three series he is just 11-for-66 with a home run and five RBI. He managed just two hits in 14 at-bats last year, as the Cubs were swept by the D'Backs.
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez more than picked up the slack left at times this season when Soriano was down, hitting .289 with 27 home runs, 111 RBI and 97 runs scored. While his power numbers may not be as gaudy as Philadelphia's Ryan Howard or St. Louis' Albert Pujols, you will be hard pressed to find someone more important to their team than Ramirez was to the Cubs this season.
Ramirez, though, also has some demons to erase after going hitless in 12 at- bats last season against the Arizona.
If Ramirez was not the team MVP than rookie catcher Geovany Soto was. In addition to his fine work behind the plate, the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year, batted .285 with 23 home runs and 86 RBI.
Of course Mr. Reliable Derrek Lee mans the other corner and had yet another productive season, hitting .291 with 20 homers, 90 RBI, with 93 runs scored, while playing magnificent defensively.
If there is one downside to the Cubs lineup it is that it is a little to right-handed heavy. They will need some help from the other side of the plate, specifically Kosuke Fukodome, if they are going to make a real run.
Fukudome hit .279 in the first half, but batted a paltry .217 after the break.
To say Los Angeles' lineup got a huge boost with the addition of Manny Ramirez, an 11-time All-Star and former World Series MVP, may be the understatement of the season. In 53 games with the Dodgers, Ramirez batted .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI.
He won't win the league's MVP, but find me an everyday player that meant more to their team in the second half of the season than ManRam.
Aside from Manny Ramirez, the other real home run threat in the Dodgers lineup is right fielder Andre Ethier, who seemingly came out of nowhere to hit .305 with 20 home runs and 77 RBI in 141 games.
Center fielder Matt Kemp could be the key to the Dodgers' lineup. He has all the makings of a big-time hitter, but has yet to put it all together. Kemp is as likely to belt three home runs in a game as he is to pick up a Golden Sombrero.
Torre has a decision to make on two of his veterans: shortstop Rafael Furcal, who has missed most of the season with a back injury, and second baseman Jeff Kent, who was sidelined most of September after knee surgery. Both are healthy, but Torre has stated he will likely not play both in the same game.
Despite Kent's assertions that one thing had nothing to do with the other, it's hard to argue that Kent did not benefit from hitting in front of Ramirez, as he batted .343 in the month following the deal.
Kent is not the best defensive second baseman around, but the 40-year-old can still hit and batted .280 this season with 12 home runs and 59 RBI.
Joe Torre has named Derek Lowe his starter for Game One. Lowe had one of the better seasons of his career this year, going 14-11 and pitching to a career- best 3.24 earned run average as a starter.
Lowe was especially strong down the stretch for Torre, winning his final four and six of his last seven decisions. Lowe last lost August 26 and in his last 10 starts, he pitched a 1.23 ERA.
Following Lowe will be 24-year-old right-hander Chad Billinsgley, who went 16-10 this season with a 3.14 ERA, winning his last four and seven of his last eight decisions.
This will be Billingsley's first postseason start. He made two relief appearances in the 2006 NLDS against the Mets, tossing two scoreless innings.
Japanese righty Hiroki Kuroda will go for the Dodgers in Game Three. Kuroda was up-and-down in his first major league season, posting a 9-10 mark to go along with a 3.73 ERA.
He was, however, 1-1 this season against the Cubs, allowing just a one earned run in 15 1/3 innings of those outings.
Ryan Dempster was one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season and will get the call for the Cubs in Game One. After serving as the Cubs' closer the last three years, Dempster was inserted into the rotation and thrived, going 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA in 33 starts.
Dempster faced the Dodgers twice this season, going 1-0 against them, giving up four runs in 12 1/3 frames.
Getting the call in Game Two will be big struggling right-hander Carlos Zambrano. The Big Z missed some time in September with a sore shoulder, but returned on September 14 and threw the Cubs' first no-hitter since Milt Pappas in 1972.
Zambrano, though, has been battered in his two starts since, surrendering 13 runs and nine hits in 6 1/3 frames. He is 14-6 on the year with a 3.91 ERA.
Rich Harden will toe the rubber for the Cubs in Game Three. Harden, who was picked up from Oakland shortly after Milwaukee's acquisition of CC Sabathia, thrived in the National League, posting a 5-1 mark to go along with a 1.77 ERA.
He had been 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA in 13 starts before the trade.
If the Cubs have one question mark heading into this series it is their bullpen, namely closer Kerry Wood.
In his first year as the team's closer the former starter saved 34 games, while pitching to a 3.26 ERA. However, things were never easy for him and he blew six saves. At some point this series he is going to have to get Manny Ramirez out. How he fares in that spot may go a long way in determining the Cubs' ultimate fate.
Setting up Wood will be rookie right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who held hitters to a .226 average over 26 games, and veteran righties Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol. Jason Marquis will also serve as the long relief man for Piniella, while Neal Cotts will be called upon to get left-handed hitters out.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, was dealt a blow in early July when closer Takashi Saito went down with a strained ligament in his right elbow. Jonathan Broxton, though, filled in admirably, saving 14 games in 16 chances after that.
Saito, though, is back and Torre has another tough choice to make on who is going to be finishing games.
Righty Chan Ho Park has done a fine job for the Dodgers in the bullpen this season and will be joined out there by lefty Joe Beimel and righty Cory Wade. Should Torre opt to go with Greg Maddux as his fourth starter, phenom Clayton Kershaw could be called upon in a big spot.
This series features two of the best managers the game has ever seen in Chicago's fiery skipper Lou Piniella and LA's laid back Joe Torre.
Torre, of course, is in the postseason for the 13th straight year after going to the playoffs the last 12 years with the Yankees. Only Bobby Cox, with 14, has a longer streak in baseball history (and no other manager has been even six years in a row).
Piniella, meanwhile, will be appearing in the postseason for the second time in as many years with the Cubs. While he may not have as many World Series titles as Torre does as a manager, Piniella is no stranger to postseason baseball, guiding the Cincinnati Reds to a championship in 1990, as well as leading the Seattle Mariners to the playoffs four times.
One of the things that made Torre's Yankees so good during their championship run was the depth on their bench. Here in LA Torre has as deep a bench as he ever had with the Yankees.
Juan Pierre may not be able to hit a lick, but he can steal a base late in games and is still one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.
Depending on who Torre decides to start at first he will have either James Loney or veteran Nomar Garciaparra on his bench. Loney (.289, 13, 90) will likely get the start.
Blake Dewitt should probably be starting somewhere in the infield, but Torre is loyal to a fault to his veteran players, meaning, of course, Dewitt will likely see time late in games as a defensive replacement.
The same can probably be said about Angel Berroa, who filled in admirably for Kent during the final month of the season.
Unlike Torre, Piniella has no problem starting his younger players or backups. Both outfielder Reed Johnson and infielder Mike Fontenot will see a lot of action, as will center fielder Felix Pie.
Jim Edmonds was a very underrated pickup by the Cubs in early-May. Edmonds (.256, 19. 49 with Cubs) will likely get a majority of the starts ahead of Pie, given the Dodgers right-handed-heavy staff.
EDGE: LOS ANGELES
Logic tells you that the Cubs should advance. Their lineup is stacked and are one of the few teams that can go three deep in their rotation. Everything tells me to pick the Cubs here, but I am not so sure. I question whether or not Carlos Zambrano is healthy. Plus Rich Harden is always a pitch away from blowing up. And I do not trust Kerry Wood in a big spot. On the other hand, few pitchers finished the year the way Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley did. Add that in with the fact that Manny Ramirez is one of the few players in the league that can single-handedly carry a team on his back. Sorry Cubs fans, your misery lingers. I am going with the upset.
Prediction: DODGERS in FIVE