Originally created 09/30/03

Lovable losers take on perennial winners



ATLANTA -- On one side, it's the Chicago Cubs - those lovable losers, heroes to the downtrodden.

On the other side, it's the Atlanta Braves - those push-button winners, keepers of consistent excellence, a team that comes to spring training already looking ahead to fall.

The Cubs open a best-of-five division series against the Braves on Tuesday, insisting that Chicago's sorry history won't have any impact this year.

Haven't won a postseason road game since 1945? Who cares. Haven't won a World Series since 1908? That's ancient history.

"If you start thinking about that stuff, you dwell in the past," Cubs reliever Mark Guthrie said. "That does you no good now."

The Braves don't mind gloating about their past. After all, they've won 12 straight division titles - three more than any other team in any of the four major sports.

"I've got to believe it give us a little edge just because everyone here is used to the whole environment of the playoffs," said 21-game winner Russ Ortiz, who will start the opener for the Braves.

Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who guided San Francisco to the World Series a year ago, made it clear on the first day of spring training that he didn't want to hear anything about his new team's pitiful resume.

"Cubs history is Cubs history," Baker told the players. "We're going to make some new history."

That they did, winning their first division title since 1989 and making the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Chicago's last appearance was as wild-card team in 1998, and it took a one-game playoff to pull that off. Then the Cubs were quickly swept aside by the Braves in the opening round, losing three straight games.

"This year, it's different," said Kerry Wood, the Cubs' Game 1 starter. "We won our division and we're coming in here with the expectation of winning a series. I think in '98, we were more surprised to be in the postseason than we are this year. It's just a whole different feeling."

Besides the contrasting perceptions of each franchise, this should be an intriguing matchup on another level.

The Braves have changed course from past playoff seasons, cruising to the NL East title with an overpowering offense.

For the first time in franchise history, four players reached 100 RBIs. Six players slugged at least 20 homers, only the second time that's happened in the National League. Atlanta led the league in every major hitting category: average (.284), homers (a franchise-record 235) and runs (907, another club mark).

"There are no easy outs in our lineup," manager Bobby Cox said. "All of them can hit the ball out. It's an explosive lineup."

The Cubs won the Central on the strength of a dynamic young rotation, led by Wood (14-11, 3.20 ERA), Mark Prior (18-6, 2.43), Carlos Zambrano (13-11, 3.11) and Matt Clement (14-12, 4.11).

In many ways, Chicago resembles the Braves teams of the early '90s, who began winning division titles with a brilliant young rotation that included Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery.

"It's just a terrific young pitching club," Cox said, referring to the Cubs. "If you're ever going to have sort of a dynasty, I think that's a pretty good way to go about it, with that type of pitching."

Baker is eager to see if that familiar baseball adage - good pitching beats good hitting - holds up in this series. The Cubs ranked third in the NL with a 3.83 ERA.

"One thing is for sure: good hitting really beats bad pitching," he said, grinning. "If you limp out there with bad pitching against those Braves, they'll beat you to death."

But Baker is old enough to remember the New York Mets - featuring Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan - winning it all in 1969 by shutting down two powerful offenses.

The Braves of Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda and Rico Carty were swept in the NL championship series. Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and the rest of the Baltimore Orioles didn't fare much better in the World Series.

Good pitching "is not overrated by any means," Baker said. "I'm just hoping that we can emulate and duplicate what the good pitching teams have done."

Then again, the Braves have managed just one World Series title since beginning their playoff streak in 1991 - despite leading the league in ERA almost every year. This season, they slumped to ninth at 4.10, but still won 101 games.

"You know these guys are going to score some runs," Ortiz said. "If you happen to miss a couple of pitches here and there, you know the offense can still catch up if you need them to."