Dodgers excited to face Cubs
NL West champs say regular-season record irrelevant
SAN FRANCISCO -- With a season-ending 3-1 loss to the Giants in the books, the Dodgers on Sunday turned their attention to the Chicago Cubs, their opponents in the National League Division Series that opens Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. PT at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs had the best record in the league (97-63), while the Dodgers (84-78) had the worst record of any team in the playoffs and the fewest wins for a first-place Dodgers finish in a full season since 1900, when the season was 136 games.
"This is what I wanted," said catcher Russell Martin, who pulled up gimpy on an infield pinch-single and was replaced with a pinch-runner, but said his legs are healthy. "It'll be fun playing in Chicago. It's what it's all about."
The Dodgers went 2-5 against the Cubs this year and were swept in a three-game series at Wrigley, but those were the Dodgers of late May and early June, when they lost 10 of 14. In one of those games, Chin-lung Hu and Luis Maza were the middle infielders and Juan Pierre was in left field.
They'll have a different left fielder when the series opens and -- in ways both physical and emotional -- a different team. This time, along with Manny Ramirez in the middle of the lineup, the starting middle infield might include shortstop Rafael Furcal, who suddenly seems healed after a slow recovery from back surgery.
"It's possible," said manager Joe Torre, who had planned to rely on Angel Berroa at shortstop, as he did through a 17-8 September. "I'm pretty comfortable with Furcal, if he maintains it the next couple days. He seems to be getting his timing. He feels good."
While the season series record against the Cubs was unsuccessful, the Dodgers have a legitimate spin to offer. The pitching staff allowed only 19 runs in the seven games, while in four of the five losses, the anemic offense scored only one run. Since Don Mattingly took over as hitting coach for the second half, the club has improved its run production by more than half a run per game.
"They're good. We have to pitch because they can beat your brains in," said Torre. "Ryan Dempster pitched well against us; he resuscitated his career with a knockout season. I had Ted Lilly [in New York]. And obviously the big guy [Carlos Zambrano] is pretty impressive. But in the postseason, you face good pitching. We've gone through Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Jake Peavy -- not bad practice."
"What I'll emphasize [to the players] is that we lost five of seven but we were in every game. We had a couple leads, but gave it up late. [The record] really doesn't bother me as much as the fact we were in every game."
Not sure if that's good news or bad news considering recent bullpen developments. Injured left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo is out. Takashi Saito seems healed from a torn elbow ligament, but his availability on consecutive days is questionable. When it's not Saito, it will be Jonathan Broxton, who converted 14 of 17 opportunities while Saito was out. Torre said he's comfortable with either closing games.
Kuo's absence, however, was again evident Sunday, when starter Hiroki Kuroda left after five scoreless innings in position for his 10th victory, but the game got away in the seventh inning, which would have been Kuo's inning.
This was Kuroda's final tuneup for his next start, Game 3 on Saturday at Dodger Stadium, where he one-hit the Cubs in a June 6 shutout. He said he wasn't just getting in his work Sunday, especially after a messy, four-inning start against the Giants at home last weekend.
"I didn't have a good outing last time and I really wanted to pitch well today," said Kuroda. "I needed this to prepare myself for the playoffs."
The series provides a sentimental return to the Windy City for Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti who, for a fleeting moment, actually seemed to be enjoying himself looking ahead.
"It's one of the great ironies of life -- the town I grew up in, the first team I worked for. It's very cool," he said. "We pitched them well. [Cubs GM] Jim Hendry put together a great team and put it together for a while. Every year they get better and better.
"I think we're a lot different [than when the teams last met]. Our lineup is vastly different. In some ways we're healthier, in some ways we're not. The month of September was key for us. Look from Aug. 30 on, this team played well, played confident, played smart, played hard."
The final regular-season team stats leaders among regulars were Andre Ethier (.305 average and 20 home runs), James Loney (90 RBIs), Matt Kemp (93 runs), Juan Pierre (40 steals), Chad Billingsley (16 wins, 3.14 ERA, 201 strikeouts) and Derek Lowe (211 innings).
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.