If we've learned anything about Octobers the last few years, it's that the month tests, stretches and hones every aspect of loyalty fandom.
Therefore, to adequately preview the madness that is the baseball playoffs, we've invited some of our favorite writers for each of the eight playoff teams to write about their teams. These will be running all day today and tomorrow, and we very much hope you enjoy them.
Up right now: The Chicago Cubs. Your writer is Mike Cetera.
Mike Cetera is associate editor of The Beacon News in Aurora, Ill. His words are after the jump.
When a girl rips your heart out, stabs it, stomps on it, burns it and spits on it before shoving the mutilated muscle back into your tortured chest, you're not likely to take her out on another date. That's something most guys just wouldn't consider. But stupid men return for more punishment; this is the essence of being a Cubs fan. We are stupid men (and women).
And though we have been slow to heal since that disastrous late-inning collapse in 2003, a number of us have fully thrown ourselves back into the relationship during this clumsy march to the postseason. Despite all of the overwhelming evidence telling us to run, run far away, some of us have left ourselves vulnerable again. Here's why:
• Anything can happen in the playoffs. Last year's Cardinals team (not to mention the 2005 White Sox, which limped in to the playoffs before destroying everybody) are no longer curse words, but are spoken of with the kind of reverence normally given to grandmothers and clergy. Some claim the 2007 Cubs are the 2006 Cardinals, a team that its own fans (Read: Mr. Leitch) only begrudgingly supported down the stretch because they were just so awful. So it goes for this Cubs team, which has been about as inconsistent as it comes. The team has suffered through stretches where no one can hit, only to be saved by above-average starting pitching and a bullpen that (despite its maddening closer) has been stingy, particularly in the second half. When the hitting finally righted itself in August and September, however, the starting pitching began to look a bit flimsy, particularly "ace" Carlos Zambrano, whose stubbornness (he won't drink water, so he continues to cramp up) has begun to rival for biggest eccentricity his penchant for emotional outbursts. In the end, there just haven't been enough stretches where the pitchers and the hitters have been hot at the same time. Yet none of these inconsistencies matter come Wednesday. The team is in the playoffs.
• The offense: Homer-happy Wrigley Field has been a tough place to score runs in a hurry this year largely because of the oddity of the wind blowing in more often than not. No player entered September with more than 19 home runs. Since then, three players eclipsed that mark during an impressive stretch that saw the team all-but put away the Milwaukee Brewers. Because the home run ball has been tougher to come by, the Cubs have been forced to rely more on speed and fundamentals, two areas the team has been terrible at for years. The Cubs have more speed in the lineup than past incarnations — even if the stolen base stats don't show it — which could give starting pitchers fits. And speed, unlike power, isn't inconsistent. Specifically, look for Ryan Theriot to take extra bases and break up double plays.
• Alfonso Soriano: Yes, the Cubs paid too much. No, he shouldn't be a leadoff hitter. But he is as responsible for the Cubs' late-season surge as anyone else. Soriano hit double-digit home runs in the final month, and despite his shaky defense, saved at least two games by throwing runners out at the plate. The lesson: Don't run on his arm. Now, about those lifetime playoff stats ...
• Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol: In addition to Soriano, Howry and Marmol can be credited with saving this team. With Howry, it's not so much of a surprise. Historically, he's been stronger out of the bullpen in the second half than in the first. This year is no different. Going into the final weekend, Howry had an ERA of 1.95 since the All-Star break, allowing just 28 hits and seven walks in 37 innings. Meanwhile, Marmol, the Cubs likely future closer, has been a dominant surprise all year. In just his first full season, Marmol had an ERA of 1.45 and had 95 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings pitched heading into the final weekend. If the game is close when the Cubs go to the bullpen, this team will be in good shape.
• The no-name squad: Every team worth rooting for has a couple of guys who become fan favorites because it's clear they have limited talent. They made it to the top because they try harder. The Cubs are no exception. This year's David Eckstein just may be Theriot, who nobody heard of before the start of the season. He's provided a near constant spark, however. The Cubs also have benefited from some late-season call-ups, including catcher Geovany Soto, whose performance both at the plate and behind it have led a number of fans to not only call for Soto to make the postseason roster but for him to start in place of Jason Kendall, whose bat has only been mildly helpful since coming to the team in a trade. (And his defense may have cost the team games.)
• Nobody is bitching: The Cubs of recent vintage have been terribly hard to root for mainly because the team has been just plain awful, but also because the players were nearly impossible to like. Credit Lou Piniella for keeping the clubhouse griping to a minimum. Dusty Baker couldn't or wouldn't control his players, and it made everyone seem petulant. It's pretty hard to cheer on a team full of jerks.
All right. We're in. Some of us refuse to trust the girl we brought to the dance. More of us may just be suckers thinking that after 99 years we'll finally get some. Bring on the heartache.