Well well well, today is a special day
After the boredom and tedium of thursday, the first off-day the Cubs have tasted in 20/21 days, the Boston Red Sox are in town. Last year's team of destiny and this season's makeover kings (did anyone see that Queer Eye episode? I am please to say that I did not...), the Red Sox are ahead of the Yankees again and looking to build off their win over the Cardinals on Wednesday. Like the Cubs, they dropped 2 of their last 3 in that series, and the Cubs find themselves meeting for the first time since 1918.
It promises to be a highly-charged and emotional affair. I already purchased my MLB.tv one-day subscription so I can watch instead of the normally sublime experience of Ron Santo's agonized voice. For any other game, Santo and Hughes would be more than enough. But today, my eyes need to see that first pitch when Maddux strolls to the mound against Johnny "Frozen Caveman Lawyer" Damon takes his stance.
So what can we expect? The two teams have a lot in common based on this season to date:
Both the Cubs and the Red Sox have performed admirably well given injuries to key players. The Cubs have soared in the absence of Prior and Wood, and the Red Sox have squeaked through despite the DLification of Schilling and, for a month or so, the beery David Wells.
The Red Sox 'pen is not what it used to be, although the faces are more or less the same. Foulke's early-season struggles are not entirely behind him yet, and the set-up duo of Embree and Halama has been shaky at best.
Compare this with the Cubs couple of Hawkins and Leicester, one of whom has taken flight for warmer waters, and we know that these matchups are not as stable as perhaps they once were. It will be interesting to see how they perform, for this series could go one of two ways -- riding the steady arms of the starters, or late-inning bullpen duels that stretch to bonus baseball.
Both teams suffered the losses of once-talismanic performers - the Cubs waved farewell to Moises Alou and Sammy "Let's leave Early" Sosa, while the Red Sox teared up at the long lonely exit of Pedro Martinez.
Again, these losses have not affected the overall performance of the teams - the Cubs are close to the top of the NL in run production and Home Runs, while the Red Sox are still winning - although any Bostonian would agree that having Martinez instead of spot-starters like Wiki Gonzalez would be a better thing.
--- Shared Shortstops and Starters, and Second Basemen
Clement returns to Wrigley wearing the Boston brogue. Nomar will watch from the sidelines as his two teams duel. It's just another storyline to an endless procession of hype and spin surrounding the series, so let's leave it at that.
In the 2003 postseason, Todd Walker was the Red Sox's best hitter. Mark Bellhorn is a former Cub. The list goes on!
EDIT: I forgot Andre Dawson and Bill Buckner on that list.... oops, and Jimmie Foxx. D'oh!
Moving on to statistics, the two teams have weapons that their opponent will find it hard to match.
One of the key factors might be something as trivial as the great NL/AL divide: here, in Wrigley, the absence of the DH. Ortiz will more than likely see time at first base in lieu of the slow-starting Millar, but the chemistry of the Red Sox has in the past relied on their 9-batter lineup from top to bottom. Francona will have to be creative with substitutions and pinch-hitting to erase this seemingly insignificant differential.
Who will be the key players this weekend?
-- Derrek Lee, 1B
He needs to continue his torrid streak in order to keep the Cubs afloat. Being one of only two Gold Glovers in the lineup, the Red Sox's pesky speed from top to bottom (of course I'm not counting Molasses-like Manny and Doritos-D'Ortiz) will test the arms of the infield and keep them all on their toes. Lee's glove will be scooping up all the throws at that corner, so he needs to be sharp.
His bat is equally important - the NL's most impressive player to-date will have all Boston eyes on him with every trip to the plate. He is a career .306 batter against the Red Sox, bested only by Ramirez on the Cubs' lineup (.333), and a danger to any pitcher.
-- Carlos Zambrano, SP
Among the NL's best so far this season despite his record and relatively low number of decisions, his is a stingy pitcher, ranked 3rd in the NL with opponents batting a woeful .188 against him. He ranks highly in strikeouts and innings pitched, and the Cubs will need that kind of steady, composed 7+ inning performance from him against perhaps the weekend's weakest Red Sox starter, Wade Miller (2-1, 4.73 ERA)
-- Tim Wakefield, SP
Having lost his last 5 starts, the longest-serving current Red Sock needs to reassert himself as the dazzling knuckleballer he is capable of being, and in an already tight and tense series, his presence might prove the difference in a lost or won series. He hasn't pitched 6 full innings since May 15, and hasn't allowed 3 earned runs or less since May 9 . Going against either Rusch or Koronka, he has the chance to show that he's still good at what he does -- against the Cubs in his career, he is 2-1 with a 4.43 ERA, although at Wrigley he's 1-1 with a 7.20 ERA.
As the veteran in a pitching staff ranked 28th in ERA ahead of only Tampa Bay and Kansas City, he has a lot to prove.
-- Johnny Damon, CF
Damon is the lead-off guy and believed by Peter Gammons to have been the "best acquisition in the majors in the last 6 years", and will cause the Cubs trouble all day long. With his speed on the bases and the field, as well as his powerful bat (31 RBI this season), Damon's ability to get on base is essential to the Boston fortunes. His OBP is .387, good for a lead-off man, and the Red Sox's patience at the plate will make the Cubs work for their outs.
The Red Sox are 3rd in the league in runs scored, and Damon's lead-off work is a cornerstone of that success.
The game is on, let's go Cubbies. Updates later.