At last the long awaited series between the Cardinals and Cubs has arrived-the battle of two teams that have been really good yet neither has pulled away with the division.
So what's the story line? Is it the once outcast Jim Edmonds returning to St. Louis for the first time? Carlos Zambrano's return to the rotation? No. None of those, actually. This weekends' battle is about two teams with beleaguered and battered bullpens.
Paying attention to both teams the last few weeks and given Carlos Marmol's stunning tribute to my post with another confounding 3-run homer last night, I can't help but have my mind fixed on who can win the early inning battles-because if these games are close in the late innings, it's totally up for grabs.
Breaking down the Cubs' broken down relief core, Kerry Wood appears the strongest member-and he's your closer. Unless Zambrano, for example, goes 8 innings tonight (which he won't because he just got off the DL), that's not entirely helpful. After being unimpressive, Pedro Ascanio will be back in Triple-A with Zambrano now on the active roster, so that leaves the Cubs' pen with 4 righties and a lefty, not including Sean Marshall who will likely make a start on Sunday.
The next most reliable right now, and I can't believe I'm saying this, is Michael Wuertz.Wuertz has very quietly taken his ERA down from 4.80 in the beginning of May to 2.70. The key is that he's been striking more guys out and let's hope that trend continues because Marmol will not be seeing a lot of tough situation action. The Cubs are apparently going to be checking to see if Marmol is tipping his pitches. Untill they figure out what his deal is, he's probably not going to see action with men on base I would guess.
In the meanwhile, Bob Howry will be filling Marmol's shoes as the set-up man on a consistent basis.While Howry's ERA is not exactly flattering at 4.43, he doesn't walk many batters. As usual, Neil Cotts and Jon Lieber will see filler time, most likely when the Cubs are losing.
So what about St. Louis?If you're a Cub fan who doesn't know the name Dave Duncan by now, then you don't know the source of your Cubs/Cards rivalry pain. He has turned starting pitchers Kyle Lohse and former Cub Todd Wellemeyerinto reliable and winning starters with ERAs under 4.00. If he's so good, you have to wonder why Jason Marquisdidn't stay on the Cardsâ€¦hmmâ€¦
Anyway, combine that with the hitting they've gotten out of guys like Ryan Ludwick, who has put up all-star caliber numbers this season and Skip Schumaker, alongside the reliable Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel and this is a club that should be contending. Why haven't they overtaken the Cubs then? Relief pitching.
First of all, they have no left-handed relief pitching. Expect the Cubs to find ways of getting guys like Mike Fontenot a lot of at-bats at least pinch-hitting. That could also spell a terrific homecoming of sorts for Jim Edmonds. Russ Springer has been the most dominant, but he's only pitched 25 innings all season. Ryan Franklin, who has spent some time in the closer role because of the inept Jason Isringhausen, and Kyle McClellanhave put up Wuertz-esque numbers, with ERAs just under 3. The rest have been spotty at best, but at least they sent Mike Parisi back down for blowing any chance he got. Mark Mulder has gotten rocked in his BP stint so far too, which doesn't bode well for the former Cards star. Basically, if you can get the starting pitchers out early, it helps.
Tonight's match-up will be Zambrano's return vs. Braden Looper, who has pitched well against the Cubs, but has been the Cardinal's weak link in the rotation recently. For the Cubs to win, they need to break Looper early. With Carlos fresh off an injury, the offense needs to carry this one.
It should be a good series, but there will be some major questions in Chicago if the Cubs don't win it.