- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- It's been almost seven months since that peculiar day, seven months since Ryan Dempster showed up for spring training, took one look at the hunger and drive that filled his team's clubhouse and proclaimed the Chicago Cubs were going to win the World Series.
It wasn't a premeditated move or one designed to create headlines or cause a stir, but rather a feeling deep within the right-hander that he couldn't ignore.
But Wednesday night, with the prophet on the mound, the best-record-in-the-National-League Cubs failed miserably in their first step toward fulfilling that proclamation, losing 7-2 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the NL Division Series.
It was the seventh straight postseason loss for the Cubs, who now have not won a playoff game since Game 4 of the 2003 NL Championship Series, before Steve Bartman became a household name. On this night, there were no "Cubbie Occurrences" as Lou Piniella likes to call them, no black cats, billy goats or overzealous front-row fans interfering with foul balls.
Instead, the Cubs were plagued by a complete inability to throw strikes and a lack of power from their three top offensive threats. Dempster, who walked seven batters in five September starts combined, walked seven in 4 2/3 innings against the Dodgers, a bout of wildness he escaped in the third but paid for in the fifth when James Loney belted a two-out grand slam into the bleachers.
By the time the eighth inning rolled around, when the public address system blasted the new Eddie Vedder Cubs song, "Someday We'll Go All the Way," a sing-along song that has to be one of the most downloaded tunes in Chicago in recent weeks, no one was in the mood to sing.
But after the game, in between apologizing for his inability to throw strikes, Dempster issued another guarantee.
"I feel terrible," Dempster said. "I feel like I let the team down. But we're going to win [Thursday]. You don't have to win five games. You only have to win three. And we'll win this one [Thursday]."
To save the day, the Cubs will turn to arguably one of the most erratic pitchers in baseball this year, Carlos Zambrano, the man who threw a no-hitter three starts ago but has surrendered seven walks, nine hits and 13 runs over his past two starts. Going back to Aug. 3, Zambrano has surrendered fewer than three runs in only three starts.
But "Big Z" is the guy his teammates want on the hill in such a crucial game.
"[Zambrano] is nasty," Lee said. "I'm always confident with him on the mound. He's emotional, but that's the way he is. I know he'll throw well."
In many ways, the Cubs' season will come down to which Zambrano shows up Thursday: Good Z or Evil Z? Before Wednesday's loss, Zambrano said there is one thing that will determine whether or not he is successful in Game 2.
"Strike on the first pitch," he said. "I need to throw strikes and challenge the hitters. If I can do that and my sinker is working, everything will be different."
If not, the team that was supposed to be the class of the National League, the team Dempster and so many others believed would erase 100 years of misery for a fan base drooling for a World Series like a hungry Rottweiler eyeing a T-bone, likely will be finished.
On Wednesday night, the Cubs were smacked around like a sparring partner by their Hollywood counterparts. The Dodgers hit three home runs, and that doesn't count the two fly balls Cubs outfielders snagged with their backs to the wall. The Dodgers went down in order only one time, in the first.
Before the game, Piniella warned that his pitchers would need to "stay away from the walks," adding that, "walks can hurt you in this type of environment, a heck of a lot." Cubs pitchers not only walked eight, but they walked Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe twice.
"I can't remember us doing that all summer," Piniella said. "You walk the pitcher to get the front part, middle part of their lineup? That's tough to do."
On offense, Soriano continued to personify the team's postseason struggles. He's 2-for-his-past-18 in the postseason with the Cubs. On Wednesday, he failed to hit the ball out of the infield, striking out twice while popping out to short, second and first.
"I had a game plan against him, but he threw a lot of sinkers and made good pitches to me," Soriano said. "I just need to regroup and get ready for [Game 2]. We need to win [Thursday]."
Chicago's only runs came on Mark DeRosa's wind-aided, opposite-field, two-run homer in the second. From that point on, only three Cubs players reached second base.
"You have to put pressure on the opposing pitcher, and we didn't do that at all," said center fielder Jim Edmonds, who went 1-for-4. "But this isn't over. It's the first to three wins; it doesn't matter if it's the first three or the last three. We just need to get three."
Edmonds, Lee and everyone else in the Cubs' clubhouse knows Thursday is a must-win. They simply can't head for Los Angeles down 2-0 in the series. And even though their paranoia-filled fan base might be searching for the nearest skyscraper and pondering whether or not it's time to jump, the team that has won 11 of its past 14 series dating back to Aug. 1 still is supremely confident.
"We're going to score a bunch of runs, Big Z is going to throw a gem and we're going to head back to Los Angeles tied 1-1," DeRosa said. "That's what I believe is going to happen."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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