Piniella doesn't see Cubs wilting in desert

SportsField HockeyBaseballChicago CubsCliff FloydNational LeagueRyan Theriot

The Cubs ended their regular season Sunday with an 8-4 loss to Cincinnati, but the Cinderella story doesn't end there.

After the New York Mets lost a few minutes later, the Cubs were assured of a National League Division Series matchup against Arizona, with Game 1 on Wednesday in Phoenix.

The Diamondbacks won four of six games against the Cubs this year and have a roster full of players unfamiliar to many baseball fans. Nevertheless, the D'backs led the National League with 90 wins, earning home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

"They played us tough," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "We had some close games with them. They're a good young team, have good pitching, but we feel we can go in there and win.

"We've got a challenge ahead of us, but hopefully we'll be up for it."

After finishing with an 85-77 record, a 19-game improvement from last year's NL-worst 66-96 season, the Cubs will try to avoid melting in the Arizona sun.

Carlos Zambrano will face Brandon Webb in Game 1 at Chase Field as the Cubs enter the postseason for the first time since 2003.

"They're in the playoffs for a reason, and so are we," left-hander Ted Lilly said. "You get on a roll and anything can happen, so I definitely feel like if we play our baseball, I'm confident we can win this series. We need to go out and do that."

Piniella wouldn't reveal his 25-man roster but said he'd stick with Jacque Jones in center field against both left-handers and right-handers and would platoon Cliff Floyd and Matt Murton in right.

"We're going to try to stay as solid defensively as we can," Piniella said.

The Cubs are better off defensively with Jones in center than Piniella's usual lineup against lefties, Craig Monroe in center and Murton in right.

"You've got to catch it," Piniella said.

Sounds simple enough. But as Detroit learned in losing last year's World Series to St. Louis, defensive shortcomings can easily be exposed in the postseason.

Piniella also said he'd bat shortstop Ryan Theriot second. He would not say which catcher, Geovany Soto or Jason Kendall, would get the bulk of the playing time. Piniella said it would depend on "the speed of the team" the Cubs play.

"I think Soto has caught most of our starters now, so ..." he said.

Look for Soto to get the majority of the starts in the division series, since Arizona was fifth in the NL in stolen bases.

Alfonso Soriano homered leading off Sunday's game, breaking Ernie Banks' club record with his 14th home run in September, and the Cubs built the lead to 4-0 by the third inning. Piniella started regulars Derrek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Aramis Ramirez, Jones and Soriano in Sunday's finale, but he pulled all except Soriano in the third.

But after Lilly was removed after two innings to save him for Game 2 on Thursday, Jason Marquis was shelled in the bottom of the third, allowing four runs on four hits and one walk in only two-thirds of an inning. Closer Ryan Dempster was also hit hard, serving up a three-run homer to Joey Votto and allowing four runs in a four-run fourth.

But now comes the hard part—trying to succeed in the postseason and shed a history of October failures.

"The real pressure is getting to the playoffs," Piniella said. "And they've been through that. I don't think I need to speak to anybody. I've talked to the team a little bit, but I think the experience they've gone through is much more beneficial than anything I could say."

psullivan@tribune.com

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