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10/03/08 10:10 PM ET

Cubs look to future to make final stand

Starting rotation set up to make historic comeback possible

LOS ANGELES -- Looking for that increasingly thin strand of hope for the Chicago Cubs? You have to look forward at this point, because a backward glance is basically demoralizing.

On Friday, just before the Cubs worked out at Dodger Stadium, manager Lou Piniella described their first two National League Division Series games against the Dodgers as "the two worst games that we've had, back-to-back, in the two years I've been here."

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No quibbles on that one. The Cubs walked every Dodger in sight in Game 1, and then every Cub infielder made an error in Game 2, two of those errors paving the way for a decisive five-run Dodgers outburst.

What hope do the Cubs have, down, 2-0, to a Los Angeles team that can pitch and catch and is hitting better now than it did all season? Scrap the stuff about how the Cubs are better off leaving Chicago and all that negativity. Nobody is better off on the road. The playoff schedule brings them to Los Angeles. It is an accident of geography, not a blessing.

No, the one primary Cubs hope revolves around the game's most elemental strength. The Cubs have guys who can pitch starting what remains of this series. Saturday night, in Game 3, they have Rich Harden, whose stuff is as good as anybody's when he is right. Maybe his health history is checkered. Maybe he did have some time off in September. And maybe he did have a cortisone shot, but he said that was just routine maintenance. He can pitch. Everybody knows it.

"Rich Harden is one of those guys who can dominate a game," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said on Friday. "He can overpower you, and then he has a breaking ball to keep you off the fastball."

That's all the testimony that's needed. Then, if Harden pitches the way he can pitch and the Cubs win Game 3, the Game 4 starter would be Ted Lilly, and you know how good he has been down the stretch.

If Lilly succeeds, and the Cubs take the series back to Chicago for Game 5, then Piniella would have both Ryan Dempster, who has to be better than he was in the opener, and Carlos Zambrano, available for the finale. Piniella said on Friday that Dempster would be available for bullpen duty starting in Game 3 and if pitched in that role, Zambrano would get the Game 5 start.

"There's a lot of anticipation and excitement. It will be nine days since I've started. Yeah, I definitely want to get out there. I'm excited to get going."
-- Rich Harden

This is not a ridiculously rose-colored scenario. It's optimistic by its very nature, but it is not a complete pipe dream.

"We set up our rotation this way," Piniella said on Friday. "Harden is a really, really good pitcher. Lilly has been throwing the ball for us as well as anybody lately. We have him set up for Game 4. And then in Game 5 we've got Dempster. We've got Zambrano. They can both pitch in that particular ballgame if necessary.

"But look, let's get to [Saturday]. Harden, I've got all the confidence in the world in Rich that he'll give us an opportunity to win a baseball game. And that's what we expected from our starters all year. That's not going to change."

For Rich Harden himself, the man who carries the weight of Cubs hopes, sort of against the tide of Cubs history, it's obviously a huge game, but he can't change his preparation or his approach.

"I've been pitching for a while," Harden said on Friday. "I know not to change anything. That's the most important thing is to treat everything the same, get prepared the same way, the same routine. And mentally, physically prepared. It is a big game. And I like pitching in those games, but I'm going to continue to prepare the same I've been preparing the whole season."

Harden did not seem to be a bundle of nerves in his appearance before the media on Friday. In fact, he seemed to be a man genuinely eager to meet the challenge of what could either be a series-saving or series-ending start.

"There's a lot of anticipation and excitement," Harden said. "It will be nine days since I've started. Yeah, I definitely want to get out there. I'm excited to get going."

That's the only attitude to have, when a whole franchise has a world of hurt on one side of the equation and your right arm on the other. The Cubs have played their way to the postseason precipice. The person who can save them now is the one man capable of controlling a game, in this case Rich Harden in Game 3 of the NLDS. And then, Ted Lilly. And then, Ryan Dempster or Carlos Zambrano, or both.

These people can all pitch. The record states that clearly. But can they, starting with Rich Harden, pitch well enough to salvage a postseason that started with so much hope and then devolved into two ruinous performances? That is the best hope, for the Chicago Cubs to turn a desperate last stand into something much better.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.