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Now that we’ve dispensed with Jon Miller‘s antics (since when did we give up
the cherished taboo on saying "no hits" in the middle of no-hitters in
progress?),
on to Georgia…


OFFENSE


For the first time in their post-’45 history, the Cubs didn’t lead the league
in scoring to get themselves into the playoffs. Their previous benchmarks for
success, ’84 and ’89, saw them do it, but then standards were tougher way back
then for playoff teams. The Cubs offense finished well behind the Astros and
Giants and basically tied with the Braves at 5.1 runs per game, and for a team
playing in Wrigley, that’s weak. In the Cubs’ defense, there’s a lot of talk
that the wind has blown in more this year than in years previous, but that
seems more wishcasting and Wrig’gling for the Cubbie faithful.


So what will the Cubs go with going into their series with the Braves? They’re
basically stuck with the low-powered lineup that has Lance Johnson leading off,
followed by Mickey Morandini, Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace,
O Henry Rodriguez, Gary Gaetti at third, Jose Hernandez at
short, and the catching platoon of Tyler Houston and Scott Servais
bringing up the rear. Against Tommy Glavine or Denny Neagle
(should the Cubs get that far), Glenallen Hill will replace Rodriguez.
Facing the Braves’ excellent rotation, you’d think that the Cubs would try to
shoot for putting runs on the board. That isn’t going to happen. Jim Riggleman
is afraid of playing Brant Brown after last Wednesday’s dropped ball. (Try to
explain the bizarre choice of Orlando
Merced
as the first choice to enter in the double-switch in Monday night’s
game.) He’s afraid to bench Morandini against really tough lefties. He’s
afraid to do what helped get this team where it is now, which is to skip
niggling defensive considerations to put the best lineup on the field, like he
had when the Cubs stuck with Brown in center and Henry Rodriguez in left. The
Cubs are a significantly worse offensive team now than they were a couple of
months ago, before Rodriguez turned his ankle and Morandini came back down to
earth, when Brown was playing, and Jeff Blauser was getting on base often
enough to keep the Cubs to only one bad spot in the lineup, their catchers.
Tactically, the Cubs don’t do much. They’re not a fast team, or a good bunting
team, or a team that’s really successful with the hit and run. Riggleman pulls
the occasional double-switch, which might make sense on paper, except that it
frequently involves Manny Alexander, which isn’t helpful: what’s the point of
moving the pitcher’s spot away from a plate appearance if you end up giving it
to an auto-out like Alexander? Being "dumber" and just pinch-hitting for the
pitcher’s spot is more worthwhile, especially with the weak bottom of the order
for the Cubs.


The Braves have few offensive problems, but a few question marks. Unlike the
Cubs’ collection of grizzled old men and Sammyvision, this is a team built
around two great young players at the height of their careers (Chipper Jones
and Javy Lopez), one at the start of his (Andruw Jones), and one who’s defied
all expectations to have his best season at 37, Andres Galarraga. Those four
regulars all slugged over .500, and we shouldn’t forget Ryan Klesko‘s plus-.500
figure against RHPs or Ice Williams‘ plus-.500 mark against lefties. Although
they scored runs at the same rate as the Cubs, they outslugged them by 20
points, and they had a higher team OBP. The heart of their order, the Joneses,
Javy Lopez, and Andres Galarraga, are a broader murderer’s row than any other
in the playoffs. That’s not to say everything’s perfect. There are health
concerns for the top of the order, as both Walt Weiss and Keith Lockhart are
struggling with injuries. Even if they were 100%, however, it isn’t as if we’re
talking about whether or not this is a lineup that depends on its leadoff
hitters as if they were Lenny Dykstra or Rickey Henderson. Weiss has been cold
since his great April, and Lockhart is an adequate hitter, even on his good
days. Bobby Cox may choose to switch things around, particularly if Weiss is
hurt, and put #8 hitter Michael Tucker at the top of the order. But that’s
essentially beside the point: the Braves’ offense is built around the
exceptional power of the heart of their order, and anything they get from the
Lockharts and the Tuckers are gravy. Because the Cubs aren’t initially
expecting to start Terry Mulholland at all, the right-handed platoon mates for
Lockhart, Klesko, and Tucker (Tony Graffanino, Williams, and Danny Bautista) won’t start.


DEFENSE


The Braves’ defensive unit is pretty solid. They have outstanding gloves at
first and third in the Big Cat and Chipper, and the Graffhart Lockanino platoon
at second has good range and turns the deuce well. There’s a big dropoff at
short if Ozzie Guillen is playing instead of Weiss. In the outfield, Andruw Jones is
probably the best centerfielder in the game today, combining outstanding range
with an run-killing cannon of a throwing arm. Tucker is a solid right-fielder,
and if anyone knows how to live with Klesko in left, it’s the Braves. With Ice
Williams available as a defensive replacement, the Braves can toss three good
centerfielders onto the field if they want to kill off extra base hits in the
late innings. Javy Lopez has made significant progress in controlling the
running game, while it isn’t quite clear if teams are running early and often
on Eddie Perez because he’s firing a popgun, or just because they’re desperate
to make something happen with Greg Maddux on the mound.


As for the Cubs, they have some problems. They do not turn the deuce well. This
isn’t just because of Jeff Blauser and/or his elbow; Jose Hernandez isn’t
reliable at it despite good range, and despite a noisy pr campaign for a Gold
Glove, Mickey Morandini hasn’t been an asset in producing the pitcher’s best
friend. Mark Grace, like Keith Hernandez before him, can be an awfully swell
scooper, but he cannot magically make his fellow infielders that much better.
The Servais-Houston platoon doesn’t catch particularly well, and is almost
hopelessly ineffectual against the running game. Sammy’s defense in right is
sporadically inspired, brilliant, clumsy, and ill-considered. Lance Johnson’s
range isn’t what it was, and his wet noodle of an arm will gift Braves
baserunners with extra bases. Between Rodriguez, Glenallen Hill, or Brant Brown
in left, the Cubs have a rare trifecta that can make Klesko look good by
comparison.


STARTING PITCHING


The best rotation in baseball vs. the Cubs. Is there really that much to say?
In their overinflated claims that they have the Braves’ number, the Cubs beat
Denny Neagle twice and smacked Kevin Millwood around, but they’ll be lucky to
see either of them in this series. John Smoltz is as close as you’re going to ever
get to a pitcher who fulfills any definition of clutch or postseason money
player. The Cubs roughed him up in one start when he wasn’t 100%, which will
probably just make him mad going into tonight. Tom Glavine hasn’t had problems
with the Cubs in the past, and people like Glenallen Hill or Scott Servais
shouldn’t give him much concern. Maddux will be rested, if untanned. Although
he’s had his share of problems in the postseason and lost his head-to-head
matchup with Kerry Wood this year, he’ll give the Braves a quality start. If
there is a fourth game, Denny Neagle has struggled with the Cubs in the past,
which might help set up a fifth game with Smoltz pitching against Mulholland or
Mark Clark.


As for the Cubs’ rotation, lets pretend everything breaks their way and Kerry
Wood starts in game three. Maybe the Cubs’ chances of winning that game are
good, but he has walked 16 men in three starts against the Braves, and only
Eric Gregg can help them there. Steve Trachsel might give the Braves’ lineup
fits with his forkball, but because of Monday’s playoff he’ll only start one
game, the third or fourth. That leaves them with Mark Clark in the opener and a
possible fifth game, and Kevin Tapani in the second. Both are pitching on
fumes, and haven’t pitched well against the Braves, and they won’t have either
a strong lineup or a strong defense to help them. By the time they get to their
better starters, in Wrigley, the Cubs should be down 2-0.


BULLPEN


As if the comparative embarassment of riches the Braves enjoy elsewhere wasn’t
enough, they don’t even have their traditional Achilles heel in the bullpen.
Kerry Ligtenberg has been almost automatic since the All-Star break, putting
the lie to the time-honored and time-dishonored notion that veteran moxie
somehow means something when it comes to getting three guys out.
Traction-action hero Rudy Seanez has finally kicked his back problems and has
been embarassing people the way scouts have been saying he could since he was
drafted by the Indians, during the Reagan administration, when the Bangles were
a great band. Chalk another one up to the Braves for getting more out of
somebody than anyone else ever could. To back up that tandem, the Braves have a
pair of hard throwers in Russ Springer and John Rocker. The danger to this pen
is the middle relief. If a Braves starter has to leave early, neither Dennis
Martinez
or Kevin Millwood are good bets to squelch rallies. Martinez has been
hittable all season, and the Cubs have lit up Millwood in the past.


For the Cubs, although they notionally have several people in the bullpen, Jim
Riggleman is terrified of bringing in Terry Adams, refuses to let Felix Heredia
pitch to more than a left-handed batter or two, and regrets every time he calls
upon Matt Karchner. Are all of them struggling? Yes. Has jerking them out of
the game at every sign of trouble help them iron those problems out? No. There
lies the problem: Riggleman didn’t invest the time to iron out anybody’s
problems, so they’ve festered. That leaves them with a two-man pen: Terry
Mulholland and Rod Beck. Do not be surprised when both of them pitch in every
single game in this series. Unfortunately, the Braves seem to have Mulholland’s
number, and Beck may not have a save opportunity to make interesting.


BENCH


Although a lot has been made of the Cubs’ addition of a veteran bat or two,
Glenallen Hill is the only man eligible for the postseason roster (Matt Mieske
and Orlando Merced were both left off the roster). Brant Brown and Jeff Blauser
will be around, but may not get to do much more than pinch-hit. Manny Alexander
will come in for defensive purposes, make outs when asked, and flub the
occasional double play.


The Braves’ bench is comparatively underrated. First there are Klesko’s and
Tucker’s platoon mates, Gerald Williams and Danny Bautista. They’ve got Eddie
Perez to catch Greg Maddux, and he’s quietly enjoyed an outstanding season at
the plate. Furthermore, they have two very good pinch-hitters in Greg Colbrunn
and Curtis Pride. Ozzie Guillen is probably a better all-around insurance
policy at short than Raffy Belliard ever could have been, just in case Weiss’
quad problem keeps coming up. Bobby Cox isn’t afraid to use anybody, and is
more likely to use them to the best advantage of their skills.


OVERALL


Most of this report has been a litany of weaknesses for the Cubs versus a
review of the Braves’ strengths. That isn’t just a reflection of how great this
mismatch should be. The Cubs could have a fighting chance in a short series,
but to help make that happen they’d have to take big risks, like plugging in
their best possible lineups and just giving up on their defense. Instead,
they’re afraid of using more than quarter of the players on their own playoff
roster, and some of "trusted" players just aren’t that good in the first place.
Operating out of fear is no way to win ballgames.


Braves win in four, with enough hijinks to make Bobby Cox reach for the Maalox
and for Cubs fans to recall wistfully for years to come.