It's up to Dempster to make an opening statement for Cubs
CHICAGO - On the very first day of spring training, Ryan Dempster made a bold statement.
"I think we will win the World Series. I really do," he said back in February, under a sunny Arizona sky.
Now, the Cubs' closer-turned-starter has a chance to back it up. Dempster will get the ball when Chicago opens its National League Division Series at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers tomorrow.
Going into this year, Dempster had heard enough about curses and bad luck following the team. Coming off a postseason appearance, he reasoned the Cubs would be even better in 2008.
He was right, of course. At least to this point.
After starting slowly in 2007 and having to overtake Milwaukee to win the NL Central, the Cubs jumped out early. They led or a had a share of the division lead from May 11 on, clinching on the next-to-last Saturday of the regular season and finishing 97-64 for the best record in the league.
Dempster and the Cubs will try to take that first step toward ending a 100-year championship drought against a Dodgers team they beat five of seven times this year - before Manny Ramírez brought his act to LA.
Dempster will face Derek Lowe in Game 1, with emotional ace Carlos Zambrano going against Chad Billingsley in Game 2 before the best-of-five series shifts to Dodger Stadium.
"Since we played them last, they've added Manny and he's quite a player," Chicago star leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano said. "They are a much better team with him so we are going to have be ready to play because it is going to be a tough series."
Soriano and cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez struggled greatly a year ago when the Cubs were swept out in three games by Arizona in the first round. They combined to go 2 for 26.
The pressure will be even greater as the talk of the long-awaited championship reaches a new level in the postseason.
"The first time, you are just happy to be there. This time, I think we will approach it a little differently," Soriano said. "We just don't want to get into the playoffs, we want to go far."
Once Ramírez came aboard, the Dodgers motored past the Diamondbacks to win the NL West in Joe Torre's first season as manager. The teams haven't met since early June, and the Cubs swept a close three-game series at Wrigley Field in May.
"It's been a while since we played them so we are going to have do some homework and figure out what has changed," Cubs closer Kerry Wood said. "But I'm confident that if we play our game and make good pitches, we'll be all right. I am looking forward to the challenge."
Dempster, who saved 28 games last season, joined the rotation and became a 17-game winner and was 14-3 at Wrigley Field - one factor in him getting the Game 1 nod.
"We're going to be ready," said manager Lou Piniella. "Let's hope that we do what we would like to do. And that's all I can say about it. I can't say anything else."