They are a study in contrasts, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, the
Chicago Cubs' young aces. At 26 Wood is already battle-scarred,
having labored for five years under the weight of a city's
expectations and torn an elbow ligament in the process. At 23
Prior has known nothing but the success unrolled at his feet in
two seasons, achieved so effortlessly that his starts inspire not
just confidence but certitude among Cubs fans. Yet after Wood's
eight-inning, one-run masterpiece snuffed out the Atlanta Braves
5-1 in Game 5 of their National League Division Series on Sunday,
the two righthanders were alike in the only way that now
mattered: As they embraced in the Chicago dugout, they both had
schoolboy grins on their faces. After 95 years of futility for
the longest-suffering franchise in sports, they had delivered a
playoff series victory.
They called to mind Koufax and Drysdale or Johnson and Schilling,
a duo whom Cubs catcher Damian Miller had handled for the Arizona
Diamondbacks. "We rode those two in the World Series two years
ago," Miller said on Sunday, "and we're going to ride these two
now"--an acknowledgement of the Cubs' near total dependence on
their pair of aces to cover for a soft bottom of the batting
order and to carry them past the tenuous middle innings, where
shaky relievers reside.
During the regular season the K Kids were a combined 32-17 with a
2.81 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings; the rest of
Chicago's staff was 56-57, 4.24 and 7.8. In the Division Series
the gap became even more pronounced; Wood and Prior were 3-0,
1.48 while their colleagues were 0-2, 5.04. Wood bookended the
series with dominating performances--11 strikeouts in a 4-2 win
in Game 1, seven more in Game 5--and it was evident from those
twin kneecappings of the National League's most potent offense
that he has never been a more complete pitcher.
"The last month or two his composure on the mound has been
phenomenal," says veteran reliever Mike Remlinger. Wood's
favorite band is Pearl Jam, and he's always been tempted to pitch
like an Eddie Vedder howl, unleashing primal, paint-peeling
fastballs. But he has tamed that feral urge and now uses a tight
slider and slow curve to complement his heater.
Before Game 5 Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild was impressed
not by Wood's velocity warming up, but by the smoothness of his
motion, the ease of his mechanics. "His delivery the first four
innings was the best I've ever seen it," Rothschild said. His
sustained virtuosity of late--since Sept. 2 he had seven starts,
including the two playoff appearances against Atlanta, and was
5-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 65 strikeouts--announces a physical
resilience he has not had before.
Despite Wood's 124-pitch marathon in the opener against the
Braves, the series was tied heading into Game 3. It was on that
frigid Friday night at Wrigley Field that Prior made his first
postseason appearance, pitted against 37-year-old master
craftsman Greg Maddux, who made his 31st. Prior fired 133 pitches
in a complete-game two-hitter, reclaiming the momentum of the
As usual Prior buzzed his mid-90s fastball with a laser surgeon's
precision, carving the corners at will. He also shaved 5 mph off
his curveball during the middle innings, throwing in the high
70s. By comparison, his standard low-80s breaking ball looked so
sharp that several befuddled Braves mistook it for a slider, a
pitch Prior doesn't use, and he had enough confidence in his
curve to throw it consistently in hitters' counts. "You're not
necessarily going to see a 2-and-0, 2-and-1 fastball," said
Atlanta second baseman Marcus Giles, "and if you do, it's not
going to be down the middle."
Wood and Prior chewed through the Braves, holding them to a .111
batting average and striking them out 25 times in 24 1/3
innings. Even Atlanta's veteran hitters seemed to swing from
their heels all series: Outfielders Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones
and Gary Sheffield were a combined 1 for 29 (.034) with nine
strikeouts against Wood and Prior.
In the exuberant Florida Marlins, who surprised the San Francisco
Giants in four games of their NL Division Series, the Cubs find a
club constructed, as Chicago is, around a youthful rotation that
has arrived ahead of schedule. Florida's starting quartet of Mark
Redman, 29; Brad Penny, 25; Josh Beckett, 23; and Dontrelle
Willis, 21, completes an NL Championship Series matchup to do
Abbie Hoffman proud: No start will be entrusted to a pitcher over
30. Of the Florida four, Beckett is in the sharpest form. Since
coming off the DL (sprained right elbow ligament) on July 1, he
has a 2.75 ERA with 107 strikeouts in 101 1/3 innings. Beckett
has an interesting perspective on the Marlins' chances in the
NLCS, saying, "I think with youth, there's a bit of stupidity,
and sometimes the youth can be stupid enough to pull [off]
something like this."
Though Chicago advanced primarily on the shoulders of Wood and
Prior, it hopes to get an improved effort from 21-year-old Carlos
Zambrano, who logged a stingy 3.11 ERA over 214 regular-season
innings but was nickeled-and-dimed for 11 Braves singles in a
Game 2 loss. The entire rotation could benefit from facing a
free-swinging Marlins lineup that gets aboard less than
Atlanta's, strikes out more and doesn't have nearly as much
power. Although the Cubs handled the meat of the Braves' order,
they have two new tasks against Florida: keeping jitterbug
leadoff man Juan Pierre (204 hits, 65 stolen bases during the
season) from consistently getting aboard and cooling off
streaking catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who batted .353 with six RBIs
against San Francisco.
That aside, there is a fatalistic numerology that befalls Cubs
fans, who sometimes appear as drunk on fascination with their
team's futility as they are on Old Style beer. It is encapsulated
on a six-digit sign that sits on a Sheffield Avenue rooftop,
beyond the rightfield bleachers. Until recently the sign had read
AC 145895, the number of years in this Anno Cubbie since the
team's last division title (14), pennant (58) and world
championship (95). But on Sept. 27, when Chicago clinched the NL
Central, the first two numbers were switched to a zero, a match
for the goose eggs Wood and Prior have been producing since
April. In a seven-game NLCS they would pitch at least twice each.
You do the math.
WHAT THE SCOUTS SAY
The big weakness is the defense. No one out there is even close
to being a Gold Glover. Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros don't
have great range, and Aramis Ramirez has bad footwork. All that
could come back to haunt the Cubs.... Dusty Baker is carrying
this team. The Cubs used to be Sammy Sosa and everyone else--now
the team is about everyone. Baker has gotten the players to
believe in themselves and the team concept, and the guys look up
to him. They show up early at the ballpark and want to play hard
for him.... Sosa is amped, he's anxious--he has so much he wants
to prove. But that means he's going to swing at pitches that he
shouldn't swing at. If pitchers make a mistake, Sammy will make
them pay; if they throw the right pitches, they can get him to
roll over.... Kerry Wood used to be the No. 1 guy in that
rotation, but now Mark Prior is--and that's fueled Wood. Those
two are constantly trying to outdo each other, which helps make
them so great.
HOW TO BEAT THE MARLINS
You have to take Florida's speed out of the game by shutting down
the guys at the top of the lineup, Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo.
Get to the Marlins' bullpen, where the lefthanded pitching is
very weak. And the Cubs have to catch the ball or this team will
jump all over them.
They caught lightning in a bottle with Joe Borowski, but we'll
see how tough he is. This time of year closers really need that
legitimate out pitch; that's why they're always power pitchers.
Borowski isn't. He has a low-90s fastball, and he doesn't scare
guys, he just keeps them unbalanced.
WHAT THE SCOUTS SAY
The Marlins look like the Angels did last year: They look in the
mirror and don't think they can do anything wrong. This is a
bunch of cocky, young renegades.... Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo
are vulnerable when you pitch them inside, then backdoor some
breaking balls on them.... Mike Lowell, back after missing a
month with a broken hand, hasn't looked good at the plate. His
swing's a little long. The Cubs' power guys can run the ball in
on him and eat him up.... Miguel Cabrera is a special
20-year-old. He's got great instincts at third, can throw and has
great hands.... Brad Penny's a little too macho. If he sees guys
jumping out of their shoes, he'll rear back and try to blow it by
them. All three young starters have a tendency to overthrow....
Ugueth Urbina is in the second tier of closers. He's learned to
use his change and slider more, but I'd much rather see him start
the ninth with the bases empty than come in during the eighth
with men on.
HOW TO BEAT THE CUBS
Patience, offensive patience. Get Kerry Wood and Mark Prior deep
into their pitch counts; Wood usually tails off if he has to go
real long. Both of them have electric breaking balls, but they
also have a tendency to miss down, and if you can get ahead in
the count, you can lay off that pitch a little easier.
It looks as if Ivan Rodriguez is playing for a $20 million
contract. His at bats against the Giants were terrific: He was
able to drive the inside pitch, and if he got behind in the
count, he went the other way. He does a good job handling his
pitchers and doesn't make many mistakes.