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Deja Vu

Oddly, after last night's frustrating 5-3 loss to the Braves in game two of the Division Series, the Cubs find themselves in almost precisely the same position they were six days ago:

* having played poorly and lost in a game Carlos Zambrano pitched on the road;

* coming home for two games in which Mark Prior and Matt Clement will throw;

* and to a forecast of rain here in Chicago this Friday.

It's not exactly the same, of course; there's no scoreboard-watching involved since the Cubs do control their destiny; win these two games and move on to the National League Championship Series. And, there won't be any chance of a doubleheader; that's simply not done in the playoffs, and you know they will play Friday unless there is an absolute monsoon.

Speaking of the scoreboard, I drove by the ballpark yesterday and the ground crew had already set up the board for Friday, putting blank panels on all the games except the bottom two lines in each league, which show the division series matchups. On Friday, of course, the only other game to be played that day, Giants/Marlins at Florida at 3:05 CT, will almost certainly be over by the time the Cubs and Braves take the field at 7:05. Though we now know that all four series will be going on Saturday, no game times have yet been announced for any of the four games. I will stand by the information I got earlier in the week; that the Cubs and Braves will play Saturday at 3:05. More on this a bit later. The Braves have not yet announced who will face Matt Clement in game four; Shane Reynolds, their normal #4 starter, didn't make the roster for this series and their other starter from the regular season, Horacio Ramirez, was warming up in the bullpen last night. I'd still figure on it probably being Ramirez, unless the Cubs win game 3 and the Braves, with their backs to the wall, go back to Russ Ortiz in game 4.

I didn't think Zambrano pitched that poorly, but all the hits he gave up (eleven through 5.2 innings, all singles -- the Braves didn't have a single extra-base hit until Mark DeRosa's game-winning double in the eighth) eventually did him in. The bullpen didn't do a bad job either, even Dave Veres, who struggled through a 33-pitch eighth inning, and even he had DeRosa with a 1-2 count and one pitch away from getting out of it. How many times have we all seen "one pitch away" in a postseason game? I don't disagree with Dusty staying with Veres, or intentionally walking Rafael Furcal to get to DeRosa -- the strategy was sound, the execution was not.

It wouldn't have gotten that far if the Cubs, who had Mike Hampton on the ropes in the first inning, had taken further advantage; Sammy Sosa's two-run double missed being a three-run homer by about six inches, and poor baserunning might have run them out of even more scoring, as was the fact that Hampton finally figured out how to throw strikes and had several Cubs, including Eric Karros (who looked awful last night) swinging at pitches way out of the strike zone.

Even then, after the game was tied by pinch-runner Doug Glanville scoring on Tom Goodwin's sacrifice fly, Randall Simon inexplicably took off for second and was thrown out easily. This one, I charge to Dusty Baker, for not putting Tony Womack on the playoff roster; he could have pinch-run in that situation or pinch-hit to lead off the ninth instead of Troy O'Leary, who's been poor off the bench almost all season. You might ask -- who would have played first base in that situation? Probably Ramon Martinez, with Womack moving into the game at short.

I tried all the game one superstitions: put my division champions cap on (I bought it on Tuesday, the day they won game one, so that was OK), watched the game on three different TV's, in the same order as game one, but nothing worked. The attire for the game on Friday will have to be chosen carefully, but I am leaning toward my Mark Prior jersey (of course, that'll have to be in addition to a couple of other shirts and a coat, since the temperature is likely to be in the 40's).

Come on, admit it: you didn't in your wildest dreams think that the Cubs would actually sweep two games in Atlanta, though I have to thank the literally tens of thousands of Cub fans who were able to do what I couldn't, and go to the games, saving Atlanta from two more embarrassing postseason non-sellouts; the game two attendance of 52,743 is an all-time postseason record for Atlanta.

And yet, once you win the first game on the road, you always want to take advantage and win game two, which would set you up for winning either one of two games at home. Having said that, the Cubs did accomplish what any team without the home-field advantage wants to do: go on the road and at least split the first two games.

Some informed speculation on starting times for Saturday: all four series will be played in the Eastern or Central time zones. On Sunday, the Marlins and Giants will have the day off for travel, so on Sunday, there could be three possible games: a game 5 in the Cubs/Braves series and game 4 in the Yankees/Red Sox.

TV networks like having deciding games in prime time; that would lead to a Cubs/Braves night game on Sunday, and so times for Sunday games won't be decided till after the Saturday results, which means the Cub game must be as early as possible.

But the TV networks also like the following: the appeal of the Cubs/Braves, and the appeal of the Yankees in prime time (I also heard that the reason the Yankees were forced to play a day game for their game 1, was partly retribution against George Steinbrenner for vocally complaining when a Yankee game time in Baltimore was switched to day from night to try to avoid Hurricane Isabel). It's doubtful that they would make the Cubs and Braves play Saturday night, possibly ending very late, then have to fly to Atlanta. They also don't need to worry about travel in the Boston/Oakland series till after Sunday, and also, late-afternoon shadows at Fenway could be troublesome, so I see both of those games being scheduled for 1 pm ET.

Remember, you heard it here first:

Saturday schedule prediction:
Noon CT, Giants/Marlins
Noon CT, A's/Red Sox
3 pm CT, Braves/Cubs
6:30 pm CT, Yankees/Twins

Sunday schedule prediction:
Noon CT, A's/Red Sox
3 pm CT, Yankees/Twins (which moves to evening if Cubs win series 2-1 on Saturday)
6:30 pm CT, Cubs/Braves

Now it's a best-of-three series, and I like the Cubs' chances with Prior, Clement and Wood going in that order. Wrigley Field will be rocking as never before. Keep hope alive.