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Cubs take their swing Potential matchups are intriguing Baseball playoffs: Chicago begins quest to be the latest to end World Series drought

The Boston Red Sox and their fans waited 86 years and then came 2004. The Chicago White Sox and their fans waited 88 years and then came 2005.

Now we have the Chicago Cubs. It's 100 years and counting for their legions of supporters. And tonight they start the quest to make 2008 their year, that one October on the calendar that will live forever as the month they finally got the big one and brought home a World Series championship.

The Cubs host the Los Angeles Dodgers in the opener of the National League division series, seven wins away from getting to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945. And if the Wrigley Field lights finally get to host that World Series -- let alone a clinching game of one -- there will be one incredible party on the North Side of Chicago.

But the expectations are incredible and manager Lou Piniella is wary of the hype. Piniella knows both sides; he won a title managing the 1990 Reds but fell short with the 116-win Mariners in 2001, who lost in the ALCS to the Yankees.

The Cubs' bizarro world of pain is filled with memories of billy goats, black cats and Bartman. Piniella met every question at the All-Star Game about the past by talking about the present. It's the tact he used all September as well but it will be hard to keep pushing that in October.

"It's not fair to put all the expectations of all the past failures here and all the past successes here on the 2008 team," Piniella said the night the Cubs clinched the NL Central. "You let this team stand on its own merit, and you let them do what they can do as well as they can do and let them go as far as they can.

"I understand it's been a long, long, long time here. I can empathize but at the same time, this is the 2008 team. Period. This is not the 1968 team, this is not the 1943 team, this is not the 1918 team. This is the 2008 team."

Starting with Tuesday night's AL Central tiebreaker playoff and continuing over the next three weeks, there should be plenty of drama as we head to the scheduled Oct. 22 opener of the World Series. Check out these Fall Classic possibilities:

* Cubs-White Sox. Wonder if Cubs fans were secretly rooting for the White Sox to go down Tuesday night or if they wanted them to stay alive to keep this one possible.

* Dodgers-Red Sox. Wouldn't the returns of Manny Ramirez (and Joe Torre) to Fenway make for some drama?

* Cubs-Rays. Piniella returning to his hometown of Tampa to manage against his old team.

* Angels-Dodgers. Manager Mike Scioscia and batting coach Mickey Hatcher leading their current team against their old one. Scioscia and Hatcher were on L.A's '88 World Series champion, and Dodger Blue has won exactly one postseason game since.

* Cubs-Angels. A matchup of the teams with the two best regular-season records, something that hasn't happened since the Yankees swept the Braves in 1999.

* Brewers-Red Sox. An all wild-card series that would give Milwaukee ace CC Sabathia another chance to make amends against Boston after his ALCS meltdown against the Sox last year with the Indians.

* Cubs-Red Sox. As much about the ballparks and the neighborhoods.

The history of this decade might be on the Rays' side even though most experts see the Angels as a prohibitive favorite in the AL.

The reason? Tampa Bay will be trying to add to the list of four teams who have made their debut in the World Series since the century turned. The 2001 Angels and 2002 Diamondbacks won the title while the 2005 Astros and 2007 Rockies were both swept.

Home records have been incredible this year: All four AL teams won at least 50 games at home, led by the Rays' 57-24 mark at Tropicana Field. The Cubs were 55-26 at Wrigley.

An annual reminder on wild-card teams: There's been at least one in six straight World Series (the Rockies did it in '07). That's good news for the Red Sox and Brewers. But here's bad news for Boston in the wake of '07: The World Series champs from 2001-2006 all failed to get to their League Championship Series the next season.

With all that as our backdrop, here's a look at the division series:

>Cubs vs. Dodgers

Around the horn: The Cubs are a heavy right-handed team and the Dodgers match up well with starters Derek Lowe, Chad Billinsgley, Hiroki Kuroda and Greg Maddux. But the Cubs have plenty of pitching themselves in Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Ted Lilly. And don't forget Carlos Zambrano, although he's been more Little Z than Big Z since his no-hitter against the Astros. . . . Mannywood, as Ramirez is being dubbed by some scribes now that he has a new address, is hardly the Dodgers' only threat at the plate. Andre Ethier hit .300 and has other run producers around him like Russell Martin, James Loney and Casey Blake, who was a game shy of the Series last year with the Indians. . . . The Cubs' lineup, led by Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Theriot and Derrek Lee, can hurt you in multiple ways, but it will be interesting to see how rookies Geovany Soto and Kosuke Fukudome respond to playoff pressure for the first time. . . . Chicago's Kerry Wood has become a dynamite closer and would love a chance to make up for Game Seven of the '03 NLCS.

Heading for home: A tough call. The Dodgers have been terrific since they got Ramirez, and Torre has plenty of motivation to keep one-upping the Yankees, who are watching on television for the first time since 1993. History has proved to be too much for past Cubs teams to deal with, even at Wrigley. Dodgers in five.

>Phillies vs. Brewers

Around the horn: Lots of big bats. Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell. Howard had one of the oddest MVP-caliber seasons in history (48 homers and 146 RBIs topped the bigs but he batted just .251 and struck out 199 times). The Phillies can play long ball and small ball (136 for 161 on stolen bases) . . . How many pitches does Sabathia really have in that golden left arm? He's going to keep pitching on three days' rest and has already thrown a career-high 253 innings. Remember, he was spent by the time he got to the ALCS last year in Boston. . . . Other than Sabathia, the Phillies have the edge in starting pitching (Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton), especially with Ben Sheets out for Milwaukee. . . . The Phillies also have a huge edge in the bullpen as closer Brad Lidge went 41 for 41 in save opportunities. But will Lidge continue to be untouchable or regress to the end of his Astros days?

Heading for home: The Phillies led the NL with 214 home runs and the Brewers belted 198. Philly's four-game sweep of the Brew Crew in mid-September resulted in the firing of manager Ned Yost, who's been ably replaced by Dale Sveum. Sabathia is scheduled for Games Two and Five so the Phillies have to make sure this one doesn't go the distance. Phillies in Four.

>Red Sox vs. Angels

Around the horn: The Angels won the season series, 8-1, but the Sox have won nine straight playoff meetings -- including division series sweeps in 2004 and 2007 on the way to Series titles. We're about to find out which trend stays and which gets reversed. . . . It's time for Vladimir Guerrero to play like an elite player in October. The fulcrum of the Angels' offense is batting just .183 for his career in the postseason. And the Angels are relying heavily on Mark Teixeira, who has never played in October. But Garret Anderson, Torii Hunter, Guerrero and Teixeira are a fierce middle of the order. . . . The Sox are beat up. David Ortiz's wrist keeps clicking, Mike Lowell's hip is a big question mark and so is J.D. Drew's back. The Red Sox have huge worries about ace Josh Beckett, who has a strained oblique and has been pushed back to Game Three. . . . Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia had a fantastic season with 213 hits and a .327 batting average and, remember, he hit a combined .319 last year in the ALCS and World Series. . . . Both teams have great bullpens led by closers Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon. This could be the last Anaheim hurrah for Rodriguez, who will try to get a bookend to his 2002 Series ring before he takes his 62 saves into free agency (don't the Mets have to go for him?)

Heading for home: The Angels' starting pitching is healthier and deeper. They have K-Rod. They have seasonlong dominance at stake and can't afford to let it quickly slide away again. The Rally Monkey prevails in four.

>Rays vs. White Sox

Around the horn: The Rays' turnaround from 70 wins to 97 is the best ever for a last-place team. Forget about their first playoff appearance -- this is the Rays' first winning season since they were born in 1998. . . . Outfielder Carl Crawford has been out since Aug. 10 (finger) but should be good to go for this series, a huge addition of swing and speed at the plate and savvy with the glove. . . . Tampa Bay is a premier defensive team. It has speed. It has power from the likes of Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria, premier pitching from Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza and a bullpen anchored by 2002 Series winner Troy Percival, '05 Series vet Dan Wheeler (Houston) and Grant Balfour. All this directed by laid-back Joe Maddon, a shoo-in for Manager of the Year who thrived as the Angels' bench coach back in '02. . . . The White Sox rely on the home run more than any team in the postseason as nearly 49 percent of their runs came from the long ball -- the highest total in the divisional era dating to 1969. That's generally not the recipe for long-term postseason success. . . . Jermaine Dye was huge for the Sox down the stretch and Jim Thome remains dangerous. This is Ken Griffey Jr.'s first postseason since 1997.

Heading for home: Yes, the Rays are full of October inexperience but they're just better. Period. And the Sox have to be spent by needing to go through Game 163 just to get to this point. Rays in four.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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