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Columnist
Harden should start playoff opener
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/27/2008 9:26 PM | Updated: 8/28/2008 7:17 AM

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Baseball people rarely talk about tomorrow, let alone a month from now.

Superstitious as they are, and terrified of upsetting the baseball deities, they don't speak of the postseason until the moment they clinch.

But since the playoffs are inevitable, and having zero belief in jinxes and curses, I fear not a bit tackling a hypothetical Cubs playoff rotation.

As we've said all along, Rich Harden is and will be the Cubs' best pitcher as long as he's healthy, so the Cubs will watch his rest carefully while pitching him in as many games as possible.

At the same time, Ryan Dempster is the best among those who have been here all year, and untouchable at Wrigley Field.

That leaves the erstwhile ace, Carlos Zambrano, who throughout his career has been better on the road (.654) than at home (.571), and in 4 postseason starts, while never having won, he's been very good in two and both were on the road.

So here's a view as it stands now, five weeks before the first postseason game against Arizona:

The first thing the Cubs would have to do is sit Zambrano down and explain why he's not leading off.

If he pouts, breaks things, or cries, and looks like he'll tank it, this won't work at all and you scrap the idea before you start.

But if they believe he'll buy into it, you go with Harden first at home in Game 1 of the NLDS.

This allows you to come back with Harden in a decisive Game 5 at home on five days' rest if necessary, and it also gives you the option of using Ted Lilly in relief after 5 innings of Game 1 if Harden has reached his pitch count, forcing batters to look at a lefty throwing slow curves after the right-handed Harden fires bullets.

Lilly also has three days' rest after his inning of work and should be good to go in Game 4, if necessary.

Dempster goes in Game 2 at home and is also available for Game 5 at home on his normal four days' rest if Harden isn't ready.

Game 3 is Zambrano on the road, and if needed, Lilly goes in the fourth game. Game 5 at home is Harden or Dempster.

Either way, one of them gets an extended rest and is ready to go in Game 1 of the NLCS, which arrives eight days after Game 1 of the NLDS.

Let's assume a four-game NLDS, which the Cubs win, 3-1. They have Harden back for Game 1 of the NLCS on seven days' rest and Dempster for Game 2 on seven days, a fabulous scenario for your two best pitchers in October.

You should leave for the middle three of the League championship series up 2-0, especially if it's the Brewers and CC Sabathia is forced to pitch in a Game 5 of the NLDS for Milwaukee.

You have Zambrano in Game 3 on the road, Lilly in Game 4, and Harden comes back to pitch Game 5 on a comfortable five days off in between starts.

If a Game 6 is necessary, Dempster goes again on six days' rest at - guess where? - Wrigley Field, where he should win and send the Cubs into the World Series for the first time since Moses was in diapers.

Worst case, the Cubs have to play a Game 7 at home, and you've got Zambrano pitching. At that point, he'll probably be ready to tear someone's head off and pitch the game of his life - assuming he doesn't break his hand punching a wall between innings.

Even under those circumstances, if Harden has to pitch Game 5 in the NLCS, he's available to come back in Game 1 of the World Series on six days' rest.

And even if Dempster starts Game 6 of the NLCS, he's ready for Game 2 of the Series on five days' rest.

If Zambrano goes in Game 7 of the NLCS, he'll have six days off before the Cubs need him in Game 3 of the World Series, and Lilly goes in Game 4 with almost two weeks off unless he pitches in relief, which is quite possible.

But, aye, there's the rub.

Harden would have to come back in Game 5 of the Series on the standard four days' rest, and that's pushing it for him at that time of year.

Dempster would be better suited for that, so if the Cubs can win the NLCS early, and don't need him for Game 6, they might want to go to Dempster in Game 1 and Game 5 of the Series, with Harden in Games 2 and 6, when he'll have five days off between outings.

That might be the smart choice, and it means Dempster pitches at home in Game 5, whereas in Games 2 and 6 he's on the road.

Tough call.

As for Game 7 of the World Series?

Carlos Zambrano to win it all, a chance to clinch all three series for his team, and a solid selling point when they try to convince him this will work.

If you were betting, you'd say the Cubs will go the safe route, avoid anger, criticism and second guessing, and go with Zambrano first, followed by Dempster, Harden and Lilly.

But does it make the most sense?

Good question.

brozner@dailyherald.com