CHICAGO -- The best team in the National League just got smacked around in two games at home by the eighth-best team in the Senior Circuit. Neither game was close, and it's hard to envision the 97-win Cubs turning it around and winning three straight against the 84-win Dodgers.
Surely, there's an explanation -- something more satisfying than curses or mojo or momentum or experience.
Fortunately, logic may prevail in this case. Because out of the eight teams in this year's playoffs, none has done quite a disservice by its regular-season record than those 84-win Dodgers. If they put together three straight series and win it all, they won't be looked at in the same way as the 83-win Cardinals of 2006.
The simple truth is that the Dodgers of August, September and October bear little resemblance to the Dodgers of April, May, June and July. If this club had played a full season, it likely would have racked up more than that modest 84-win total. It probably also would have done better than the 2-5 mark that Los Angeles managed against Chicago when the teams played two series in the first half.
"At the time we played them, they were the better team, and they may be a better team right now, but we're playing with a lot of confidence right now," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre.
"You know, to me, we beat them two out of four at our place. It comes down to pitching. We didn't pitch well late in those games here. ... [Ryan] Dempster had his way with us, and I think [Jason] Marquis had his way with us in L.A., but we've gained a lot of patience since then, and we're a different ballclub."
In July, the Dodgers added Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake and Greg Maddux. They minimized the at-bats of Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. They saw youngsters like left-handed starter Clayton Kershaw and righty reliever Cory Wade emerge. They got closer Takashi Saito and leadoff man Rafael Furcal back from injuries in the final days of the season.
Changing face of the Dodgers
The Dodgers' lineup has evolved significantly over the course of the season. A look at who played the most, when.
This isn't a question of momentum. It's not about the fact that the Dodgers won 19 of their last 27. The issue isn't whether the Cubs eased up on the gas pedal over the season's final days, once the NL Central title was secure.
Instead, the fact of the matter is that Torre's team as of October is simply a different ballclub from the one that was 46-49 at the All-Star break. Several lineup spots have been turned over. The bullpen has a different look. The Dodgers, as currently constructed, are better than an 84-78 team.
"We were a completely different team," said right-hander Chad Billingsley, who would know better than most. "We had a lot of injuries early on in the year and were able to battle through it. The [Trade Deadline], we made some good moves in Manny over here and Casey and Greg, just really came together well as a team."
On July 19, Billingsley had a spiffy 3.32 ERA, but a 9-9 record. From there to the end of the year, he went 7-1, thanks in part to a seriously upgraded offense backing him up.
The Cubs have improved as well, thanks to the July addition of Rich Harden, who has dramatically bolstered their starting rotation. But fundamentally, the Cubs team that went 35-21 in April and May is pretty much the same as the one that 32-20 in July and August.
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"[The Cubs] and the Angels and Tampa Bay are the three clubs that really went from gate to wire," Torre said.
And while Los Angeles has gotten some key players healthy, Chicago has lost the Carlos Zambrano it's used to seeing. Over those same final two months, Zambrano posted a 7.28 ERA -- even with his no-hitter in the mix. Yet the Cubs kept winning, because Zambrano only pitches every fifth day. And the rest of the club was getting the job done.
That's how you win 97 games, really. It takes a full roster. It takes a five-deep rotation, which Chicago surely sported. It takes depth in the bullpen. It takes reserves who can step in on a day game after a night game and give their team a chance to win.
It's not exactly how you win 11 games in October, though. The rotation gets shorter. The back of the bullpen trumps what a club may have in the middle innings. And absent any strict left-right platoons, the same eight hitters start pretty much every day.
So a "stars-and-scrubs" approach, as it's unkindly known in fantasy baseball, really can work in October -- if you can get there. It also helps if the other guys play sloppy, as the Cubs surely have. One other lesson of this series is that even an exceptional team can just play poorly for a few days at a time.
"Listen, you play the way we played, it doesn't matter who your opposition is," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella. "You've got to improve that effort. ... We talked about being a good defensive team, and certainly [on Thursday] we weren't."
So the Cubs can play better, and they need to. But the truth of the series is that even if the Cubs play their best, they're not that much better than the Dodgers. They're certainly not 13 games better.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.