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Thoughts On A Division Series

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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- I have been racking my brains trying to think of what I could write in previewing this series that hasn't been written in 1000 other places.

OK, no, I have to come clean. I've been sitting by the pool enjoying the sun and reading all afternoon, and not stressing about this at all. There'll be plenty of time to get energy levels up and stress tomorrow, when Game One will actually be played. Now, don't get me wrong -- I AM excited. Just about crawling out of my skin, in fact.

Anyway, back to previews. If you want a good statistical comparison between the two clubs, The Baseball Analysts has one. So does Baseball Prospectus, and Nate Silver has decided:

... to go out on a little bit of a limb and predict a Cubs sweep.

Well, that's a little too optimistic even for optimistic me; more on this anon. I've decided to focus this little preview on two things:

  • the six games between the two ballclubs this year, and
  • the well-known fact that the Diamondbacks were outscored by twenty runs over the course of the 2007 season.
The Diamondbacks won four of the six games played between the two clubs, but the Cubs outscored them 19-18, which plays neatly into the "we got outscored but won anyway" theory; D'backs third baseman Mark Reynolds summed it up in this Washington Post article:
"When we lose, it seems like we lose 15-0," Reynolds said. "But if we win the first two games of a series, then lose 15-0 in the third game, we still won the series."

Well now, let's examine this. Here's the Diamondbacks' complete game schedule from 2007. They allowed ten or more runs in a game fifteen times in 2007, and lost all fifteen of them. This isn't unusual -- the Cubs' record in such games, for example, was 0-11 -- but the D'backs lost all of those games by at least five runs, and the combined score of those blowouts was 166-41. Contrast this with the Cubs' eleven losses of that sort; five of them were at least within shouting distance (four runs or less -- 12-9 to the Cardinals on April 22; 11-7 to the Phillies on May 12; 10-6 to the White Sox on May 20; 10-6 to the Phillies on August 2, and 11-9 to the Reds on August 15), and the total score of those blowouts was 125-55. Arizona's overall record in 5+ run games was 20-26; the Cubs' was 27-17.

The point of this little exercise is to show that the D'backs' run differential may be more attributable to those blowouts than a "normal" team, and they had a very good record in one-run games (32-20, compared to 23-22 for the Cubs). A lot of this can be credited to Arizona's good bullpen, anchored by Jose Valverde, who led the major leagues in saves with 47.

He saved one game against the Cubs that I'm sure you all remember -- the final regular-season game of the year between the clubs on August 26, a game in which Jason Marquis was staked to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, a lead he promptly blew by giving up two HR to Chris Young; the Cubs managed to claw back to within 5-4 when Derrek Lee hit a monster inside-the-park HR, a ball that went about as far as you can hit it in Chase Field without hitting it out. The Cubs had a real good shot at tying the game or going ahead vs. Valverde in the 9th, when Mike Fontenot got thrown out trying to steal third on a failed bunt attempt by Jason Kendall.

The Cubs lost another game to Arizona when Bob Howry gave up a tiebreaking HR to then-.243 hitting Stephen Drew, and another when Yusmeiro Petit, one of those young guys the Cubs never do well against when seeing them for the first time, replaced Randy Johnson (yes, he was a member of the D'backs, this year, though he didn't pitch after June 28), and shut the Cubs down on three hits over six innings. Petit won't pitch in this series.

So what's the lesson here? Score early and often -- something the Cubs have been doing quite well in recent weeks -- and hold the opposition down so you get into their bullpen early, and keep Valverde out of the game, and beating Arizona becomes much, much easier. The D'backs did have the best regular-season record at 90-72, but the Cubs were only five games worse. To my mind, there isn't really much to differentiate the four NL playoff teams -- all are flawed, and all have strengths. The Cubs were 17-12 in September; Arizona was 15-11. Beat Brandon Webb, with Z on the mound tomorrow, and I believe the task becomes far, far easier.

Bruce Miles says the Cubs will sweep. In talking with Bruce all summer, he's always had confidence that the Cubs could and would win the division. I respect his opinion greatly, as I know all of you do too.

I'm not ready to go that far out on a limb. Cubs in four. Let's win this thing.