- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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The Cubs won their first postseason series since 1908. The Marlins are the fifth team in National League history to make it to the playoffs in a season in which they were 10 games under .500. The Cubs won 19 games in September, the most in that month since 1945, the last time they went to the World Series. The Marlins have the best record in baseball since mid-May. The Cubs have this incredibly loyal fan base that has been begging for a pennant for over 50 years. The Marlins fan base recently went from 5,000 to 65,000.
This will indeed be a very interesting series. Here are five questions.
1. How good is the Cubs' starting rotation?
The Cubs had four 13-game winners for the first time since 1945. They had four 200-inning men for the first time since 1975. For pure stuff, it's the best rotation in the game. Kerry Wood became the first Cub to lead the major leagues in strikeouts since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920.
Wood was terrifyingly good in two starts in the Division Series (he won Game 5 Sunday night, so he probably won't start until Game 3 of the NLCS). Wood was 2-0 against the Marlins this season, allowing five hits, one run and striking out 20 in 18 innings.
Carlos Zambrano's sinker is so good, you know it's coming, and he'll still break your bat (he allowed one run in 12 1/3 innings against the Marlins this season). Matt Clement might have the game's best slider. Mark Prior is fabulous. In the ninth inning in Game 3 of the Division Series, he bent Javy Lopez in half with a curveball, then Lopez swung at a pitch that bounced several feet from the plate in the opposite batter's box. These four right-handers should present problems for the Marlins, whose best power threats are right-handed.
2. Is it possible that Dontrelle Willis' amazing story can get any more interesting?
Yes. Willis is a former Cub farmhand who was traded along with three other players to the Marlins in March 2002 for Clement and reliever Antonio Alfonseca. At the time, it seemed like a steal for the Cubs, but now we know why the Marlins made the trade.
It was Willis, more than anyone else, who sparked that team, and pitched it into contention. He helped give that team an identity. Willis hasn't been the same pitcher the second half of the season, but he did throw a lot better in his final few starts, and in the playoffs. Against the Cubs in early July, he pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings. In his next start, however, he gave up six runs in two innings of a 16-2 loss to the Cubs. Willis is scheduled to start Game 4 against ... Clement.
3. Will Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell play a significant role in this series?
Probably not. He'll probably be mostly used as a pinch-hitter. Lowell suffered a broken left hand in late August, and the Marlins went 18-8 without him. He is their best all-around player and their leader. But his hand hasn't healed yet and his timing isn't back. It's virtually impossible to hit with a bad hand and no timing, especially against a staff of dominant, right-handed power pitchers such as Chicago's.
Lowell has been ably replaced by rookie Miguel Cabrera, who made one error in 34 games at third base (his natural position) during the regular season. Cabrera has been replaced in left field by Jeff Conine, who has gotten some huge hits (two homers against the Phillies) and made some stunning defensive plays (two great catches, one great throw) down the stretch and in the playoffs. Lowell probably will start only if Cabrera struggles badly.
4. How good is the Cubs' bullpen?
Pretty good. Closer Joe Borowski, who entered this season with two career saves while playing for seven different organizations (not to mention stints in Mexico and the Atlantic League's Newark Bears in the last few years), saved 33 games this year.
"You can do a lot worse than Joe Borowski,'' said a scout who has seen the Cubs many times this year. "He can throw a breaking ball for a strike whenever he wants, and he has a big heart. The big kid (Kyle Farnsworth) throws 100 (mph) and (Mike Remlinger) is one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. They have at least three guys who can strike you out.''
Indeed. Borowski, Farnsworth and Remlinger had 241 strikeouts in 213 2/3 innings. Just because Cubs manager Dusty Baker stayed with Mark Prior in the ninth inning of a close game doesn't mean the bullpen is unreliable. It means Prior is a tremendous pitcher, a ruthless competitor, and a finisher.
5. Will the Marlins' inexperience hurt them?
Hurt them? It's why they're here. They are driven by their youth, enthusiasm, hunger and ignorance to pressure. Their manager, 72-year-old Jack McKeon, is older than his top three pitchers -- Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Willis -- combined. The average age of their rotation is just over 25 years old, the youngest since the 1986 world champion Mets.
The Marlins' speed and daring on the bases is what makes them so difficult to defend. They led the major leagues with 150 steals, 50 more than any other team in the National League (the last team to lead the major leagues in steals, and win the World Series, was the 1965 Dodgers). The Cubs pitching staff may have set the major-league record for strikeouts in a season (1,404), but the pesky Marlins had the third fewest strikeouts (978) in the league. The top two guys in their order, Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, are a pain in the neck for a pitcher.
Prediction: Cubs in seven.
Five key questions facing the Cubs and Marlins in the National League Championship Series.