Previewing the Cubs (88-71) and Braves (94-65)

CHICAGO - And so, it all comes down to this. After dropping three of four from the Cincinnati Reds and falling a full game behind the Astros and Giants in the Wild Card standings, the Cubs must now regroup in time to welcome the NL East champion Atlanta Braves to town for the final regular season series of 2004.

It's been another fantastic pennant run for manager Bobby Cox, who on Wednesday became only the ninth skipper in major league history to record 2,000 career wins. After starting the season 32-38, the Braves have gone on a tear from June 24 on, going 62-27 in their last 89 games.

To no one's surprise, it's been pitching, pitching, pitching as usual down in Hotlanta. The Braves' staff ERA of 3.68 is the best in all of major league baseball, and starter Jaret Wright could very well be the comeback player of the year in the National League. Wright has posted 15 wins and a 3.28 ERA--the best for any Atlanta starter.

Veterans John Thomson and Paul Byrd have both pitched above expectations for the year, while opening day starter Russ Ortiz and left-hander Mike Hampton have also thrown the ball solidly for much of the season.

On offense, Cox's Braves haven't quite matched their explosive tear from a year ago in which they hit .284 for the season with sluggers like Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez in the lineup. However, their current .269 average ranks fifth in the National League, some eight points behind St. Louis for the league lead.

Catcher Johnny Estrada has more than filled the void left by Lopez at the end of last season, batting a team-best .313 in 132 games behind the plate. Meanwhile, Chipper Jones can become only the second player in National League history and the first since Sammy Sosa to tally 100 RBIs or more in nine consecutive seasons. Jones is just four shy of that mark.

Jones has recorded 310 homeruns under Cox, 10 shy of major league baseball's all-time mark of 320 set by Mickey Mantle under Casey Stengal for a player who begins his career under one manager.

Former Cardinal J.D. Drew, traded to Atlanta in the off-season in a highly-questioned move by Braves GM John Schuerholz, has reached base safely in 28 of his last 34 games, while batting above .300 for the first time since 2001.

Almost inevitably, ex-Cubs Antonio Alfonseca and Juan Cruz have resurrected, if not saved altogether, their careers in the pitcher-friendly confines of Turner Field. Both Alfonseca and Cruz lead the Atlanta bullpen with ERA's of 2.60 and 2.63, respectively, and averages below 1.50 at "The Ted" this season.

Closer John Smoltz, still one of the best in the business after 16 years of service in a Braves uniform, leads the way with 43 saves. Smoltz is five strikeouts shy of 2,400 for his career.

The Cubs come into play having been embarrassed at home by the Cincinnati Reds, in which the team dropped three of four and three straight. The Cubs are just 7-7 for the month of September at Wrigley, and have now dropped three straight extra inning games to fall to 10-9 in those contests this season.

Likewise, the team's inability to win close games at home has become evident by their 9-17 mark in one-run games at the friendly confines.

The Cub offense has once again gone ice cold in the past week. Of those struggling, Michael Barrett (0 for his last 13), Derrek Lee (2 for his last 17), Aramis Ramirez (2 for his last 15) and Corey Patterson (9 for his last 51) are the most noteworthy.

Now a look at the pitching match-up's for the series.

Friday, 2:20 CDT: Mike Hampton (12-9, 4.38) vs. Kerry Wood (8-8, 3.58)--WGN

Mike Hampton needs to go only an inning and a third to reach 2,000 IP in his major league career. Hampton is coming off a brilliant, seven-inning shutout performance after the Florida Marlins back on September 25 at Turner Field, in which he allowed just three hits and struck out three. He suffered a meniscus cartilage tear in his left knee back on September 11 in a start against Montreal that will require surgery in the off-season. Hampton is 11-2 in his last 15 starts, but the Cubs have gone 19-5 against left-handed starters at Wrigley Field this season.

Kerry Wood looks to continue his dominance of the Atlanta Braves. Earlier this season, Wood went seven innings and gave up just one run on five hits in a victory over Atlanta at Turner Field. He struck out seven consecutive hitters at one point in that contest, a Cubs record for 2004. Lifetime against the Braves, Wood is 3-0 with a 1.99 ERA in six starts, not including two dominant outings in last year's Division Series at Turner Field that propelled the Cubs into the NLCS. Wood comes in fresh off a loss to the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, where three first inning runs doomed the right-hander and gave New York a victory.

Saturday, 12:20 CDT: John Thomson (14-8, 3.73) vs. Carlos Zambrano (16-8, 2.60)--FOX

John Thomson was laughed at by many when the Braves signed him to fill Greg Maddux's spot in the Atlanta rotation. Alas, never underestimate the power of Leo Mazzone. Since joining the Braves, Thomson has posted a career-high 14 victories and well surpassed expectations heading into the year. Since the all-star break, the right-hander is 8-1 with a 2.42 ERA with only five homeruns allowed. Thomson has won four straight decisions and has not lost since August 15 against St. Louis.

Carlos Zambrano leads the Cubs with 16 victories and is second in the National League with a 2.60 ERA in an even 30 starts. Zambrano picked up the win his last time out against the Reds on Monday night, allowing one run on five hits in 6.1 innings. Zambrano is 4-0 in his last four decisions and has posted a sparkling 1.01 ERA for the month of September. The Cubs are 21-9 when in his 30 starts this season.

Sunday, 1:20 CDT: TBA vs. Greg Maddux (15-11, 3.88)--WGN

Greg Maddux can match his 2003 total of 16 wins in the Cubs' regular season finale. Maddux was hit hard on Tuesday night against Cincinnati, when the right-hander allowed six runs in only five innings of work. Maddux has gone at least six innings in 26 of his 32 starts this season.

The Braves have yet to announce a starter for Sunday's game.

SERIES NOTES: Cox can move one step closer to eighth place on the all-time wins list for a major league manager this weekend. His career 2,000 victories are only eight shy of former Cubs skipper Leo Durcoher. The Cubs are 1,197-990 lifetime against the Braves, including a 441-317 mark at Wrigley Field.

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