no one, i'm sure, comes to me for optimism. i've called this club a blunderingly-lucky .500 outfit all year. but if i have to judge from the tone of the papers and the comments around the cubosphere, i'm probably the most optimistic cub fan now living in chicagoland.
the cubs lost game one to the best pitcher in the national league on a day when his stuff was working. many people have focused on lou piniella's lifting of carlos zambrano on 85 pitches for carlos marmol as some kind of mistake, but the truth is that when you score one run you aren't in a position to win. the key non-move, in my opinion, was not lifting him an inning earlier for daryle ward when brandon webb was in the only serious trouble of his evening. a hit in that situation would've changed the game radically. but you can't undo it, and you shouldn't expect to beat webb anyhow.
i warned about game two in the comments yesterday.
i think sam holbrook is the plate ump tonight -- not sure because of the line umps, but he did first last night and that's the usual rotation.
holbrook is one of the most egregiously tight umpires in the majors. he ranked 9th of 85 in baserunners/9 and 14th in bb/9 -- 8th of 83 in br/9 and 4th in bb/9 in 2006 -- and 7th in br/9 in 2005.
both pitchers were going to be vulnerable to holbrook; it was likely to be a high-output night. ted lilly caught the short end of that. i personally watched the bottom of the first with a smirk and went to bed in the top of the second -- i actually didn't see young's homer until this morning's coffee. some of that is a concession to the dementia of consecutive weeknight 9pm start times combined with a two-year-old at home, but it also seemed to me baked in that lilly was going to be hurt badly when holbrook got him for two walks in the first three batters. it was a bad night and a bad umpire with which not to have your good control.
doug davis was plenty squeezed as well, but he was plainly attacking the plate early. it cost him on the soto homer, but the truth is that alfonso soriano, derrek lee and aramis ramirez are generally not going to thrive on a big-curve pitcher like davis. they need to be fed fastballs, and when davis came out throwing his bender for more strikes than not and working ahead in the main, the cubs were in trouble. the cubs' big three is now 4 of 27 with 12 fans over the last two games.
so what's to be optimistic about? after all, game 3 in chicago will bring greg gibson behind the plate, and he's an even more offensive-minded umpire than holbrook. livan hernandez is nothing if not a junkballer. and in the end, even if things go well, it all comes back to brandon webb in arizona next tuesday, doesn't it? moreover, did you see the body language on the cub bench?
hey, it's true there's no margin for error now. the nlcs isn't the probable outcome.
but look at games 3 and 4 and there's compelling reason for rational hope. livan hernandez is a bad pitcher, and he's taking the ball saturday. here are the cub career lines against him -- and true to form, lee and soriano don't like him much. but aramis has killed him, as have cliff floyd, jason kendall, mark derosa and daryle ward. moreover, livan has experienced a steep decline in his abilities, which shows up in fewer and fewer strikeouts (just 90 in 204 innings) and more and more home runs allowed (34, including 18 in 89 post-asb innings). with gibson's aid, the cubs should score early and often. the trick will be rich hill keeping the ball in the park, something he's done very well since july. if he does that, the cubs should go to game four easily and provide themselves some much-needed momentum.
micah owings is bob melvin's game four starter, and he's a 24-year-old rookie who didn't make the roster until randy johnson broke down. what's essential to understand about owings is one of the concepts that has vexed readers of the blog all season -- batting average on balls in play. owings solidified his job in the d'back rotation not by getting lots of strikeouts or being very fine but by getting pretty lucky.
it was really a tale of two halves for owings. in the first, he posted a 4.84 era over 16 appearances with an elevated .313 babip. the second half picture, however, improved markedly -- owings has managed since the all-star break a 3.72 era, with his control ticking up (19 bb in 72.2 ip) despite an increasing vulnerability to the long ball (16 in his last 16 starts). however, and most encouragingly for the cubs, this came on a .233 second-half babip -- indeed, most if not all of owings' improvement is the product of luck on balls in play, which was particularly incredible in september (.161 babip over 4 starts).
in short, while not a bad pitcher on the order of livan, owings isn't nearly as good as he sometimes seems. his approach is also encouraging to the cubs fastball-loving core -- a low-90s heater is his primary pitch, with a slider and changeup that are still works in progress. the cubs saw him twice in 2007, so there's not much matchup data. he lasted four innings on 95 pitches on july 21, and took the loss august 24. he's had a lot of trouble with lefthanded batters, so expect good things of jacque, floyd and ward. (owings is, however, a fine hitter -- just tossing that in there. melvin wouldn't be dumb to hit this kid fourth, and he'll have a future a la rick ankiel if the arm gives out.)
again, the critical aspect: zambrano -- can he come back on three days rest after a short outing, can he keep the demons at bay in front of what is sure to be an energized crowd, and can he suppress the walks? if the answers are yes, the cubs should do well -- and he's likely to get some help in the form of game 4 plate umpire mike everitt, one of the most pitcher-friendly umpires in the majors. that'll help owings too (though probably not nearly as much as loose corners will help big z) and it might be a low-scoring affair, but the cubs should definitely be favored.
now of course there's no crystal ball in any of this -- but if the cubs can take these two in chicago, they should be riding considerable momentum back to arizona to face webb. that gives them a chance -- after all, the d'backs lost in 12 of webb's 34 starts. but the overarching point is simply this: contrary to simply projecting the last two games forward, the cubs should be heavy favorites in both the next two games.