Cubs thrive off balanced lineup
Contributions come from every corner for NL Central champs
CHICAGO -- If there is one underlying theme for the Cubs this season, it's team.
There's balance. They have five players with at least 20 home runs, five with at least 74 RBIs. Three pitchers have at least 14 wins. It's nearly impossible to pick one MVP. How can you choose between rookie catcher Geovany Soto, versatile Mark DeRosa, steady Ryan Dempster, closer Kerry Wood, setup ace Carlos Marmol and RBI man Aramis Ramirez?
Lou Piniella can't pick one.
"What this team shows is it's a team," Piniella said, sounding almost Yogi-esque. "We've got contributions throughout. Yeah, we've got people here who have done wonderful jobs, but we have a lot of them. I don't get into these award things. ... Soto's done a heck of a job, Marmol's done a heck of a job. There's been quite a few of them who've done a heck of a job."
The workmanlike attitude has paid off in a second straight National League Central crown, a second trip to the postseason for the first time since 1907-08 and a chance to end the dark cloud of the 100-year drought since the Cubs last won a World Series.
They'll kick off the NL Division Series on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. CT on TBS, facing the Dodgers at Wrigley Field. The Cubs have secured home-field advantage in the postseason, and they definitely have an edge, compiling a 55-26 mark on their remodeled home turf.
Dempster, who won a career-best 17 games this year, will be the starter in Game 1. After being a closer for three seasons, the right-hander will make his first postseason start.
In 2007, the feeling was relief when the Cubs rallied to overtake the Milwaukee Brewers and clinch the Central. That year, they needed about three months and a scuffle in the dugout to get to know each other. There were new faces like DeRosa, Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, and it was Piniella's first season in Chicago. The playoffs ended abruptly as Arizona swept the Cubs, 3-0, in the NLDS.
This year has been more businesslike. The players were on a mission.
"Last year, we fell a little bit short," Chicago shortstop Ryan Theriot said. "I think we've all kind of grown a little bit. Our team has grown for sure. Hopefully, we can correct our mistakes from last year."
Soriano gets things started. Despite missing six weeks because of a broken bone in his hand, Soriano leads the team in home runs (29) and has five leadoff shots this year and 49 in his career, which ranks third in the Major Leagues.
He is one of five Cubs players with 20 or more homers, joined by Ramirez (27), Soto (23), DeRosa (21) and Derrek Lee (20). It's the third time in franchise history the Cubs have such a quintet.
They've gotten significant contributions from castoffs Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson, who were released by the Padres and Blue Jays, respectively, this year. They share center field and have combined for 25 homers and 99 RBIs. Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome may have struggled offensively, but he's the best right fielder the franchise has had since Andre Dawson.
The Cubs have improved their on-base percentage and set a club record for most walks in a single season. The club batting average of .278 is the best since the 1937 team hit .287. They finished as the NL leaders in runs scored, posting their first 800-run season since 1998. And isn't that what it's all about, scoring the most runs?
"This is the best team I've been a part of, the deepest team I've been a part of, the best offense, and all the way through," Wood said. "We have a good team."
They have good pitching to complement the offense. The Cubs have been at the top in the league in ERA, led by Dempster. Carlos Zambrano's no-hitter Sept. 14 against the Houston Astros definitely helped the stats. Big Z, who battled tendinitis in his right shoulder, went 14-6 with a 3.91 ERA in 30 starts and was unable to total 200 innings for the first time after five straight seasons of reaching that mark.
Lilly, who picked up the win in the clincher Sept. 20, set a personal high in wins, and July pickup Rich Harden has racked up strikeouts at an incredible pace.
But one of the best success stories on the team is the conversion of Wood from starter to closer as he traded places with Dempster. Wood's career was precariously close to being over because of an achy shoulder, and he was switched to relief to avoid aggravating his arm. He has posted the team's seventh-highest season save total (34) and the most since Rod Beck's 51 in 1998. That '98 year was Wood's rookie season.
If there is a question, it's middle relief. Rubber-armed Marmol sets Wood up, and the Cubs can only hope the starters go at least seven or have a lead.
Most teams have The Man whom opponents try to pitch around. There isn't one guy on the Cubs. They've had a different MVP nearly every day.
"You'd take it as a challenge," Lilly said when asked if he'd like to face the current Cubs. "But it'd be tough. We've got guys hitting in the six, seven, eight holes with 15-plus home runs who can hit it out of the park."
Piniella, 65, has one World Series ring as a manager, which he collected in 1990 with Cincinnati. His team has developed a swagger, which may help carry it deep into the postseason.
"One of the big things we had to change here was a little bit of that [lovable losers] culture," Piniella said. "Now, we go forward from there. It's been rewarding. Two years ago when I took over, this team had lost the most games in the National League [96 in 2006], and two years later, it's going to win the most games in the National League."
Wood estimates he's been asked about 30 times about the Cubs' 100-year drought since they last won a World Series. Theriot said the question has been posed about 100 times for him.
"You can't do anything about the teams before us," Theriot said. "All we can control is this team and we're going to play hard and hopefully we can do it."
Piniella has reminded people that it isn't 1908 anymore.
"We're responsible for  and we'll play as hard as we can and as well as we can for as long as we can," Piniella said, "and when it's over, we'll go home like men. That's it."
And if the Cubs were to win the World Series this year?
"Then they won't ask any more," Theriot said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.