They are a study in contrasts, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, the Chicago Cubs' young aces. At 26 Wood is already battle-scarred, having labored for five years under the weight of a city's expectations and torn an elbow ligament in the process. At 23 Prior has known nothing but the success unrolled at his feet in two seasons, achieved so effortlessly that his starts inspire not just confidence but certitude among Cubs fans. Yet after Wood's eight-inning, one-run masterpiece snuffed out the Atlanta Braves 5-1 in Game 5 of their National League Division Series on Sunday, the two righthanders were alike in the only way that now mattered: As they embraced in the Chicago dugout, they both had schoolboy grins on their faces. After 95 years of futility for the longest-suffering franchise in sports, they had delivered a playoff series victory.
They called to mind Koufax and Drysdale or Johnson and Schilling, a duo whom Cubs catcher Damian Miller had handled for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "We rode those two in the World Series two years ago," Miller said on Sunday, "and we're going to ride these two now"—an acknowledgement of the Cubs' near total dependence on their pair of aces to cover for a soft bottom of the batting order and to carry them past the tenuous middle innings, where shaky relievers reside.
During the regular season the K Kids were a combined 32-17 with a 2.81 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings; the rest of Chicago's staff was 56-57, 4.24 and 7.8. In the Division Series the gap became even more pronounced; Wood and Prior were 3-0, 1.48 while their colleagues were 0-2, 5.04. Wood bookended the series with dominating performances—11 strikeouts in a 4-2 win in Game 1, seven more in Game 5—and it was evident from those twin kneecappings of the National League's most potent offense that he has never been a more complete pitcher.
"The last month or two his composure on the mound has been phenomenal," says veteran reliever Mike Remlinger. Wood's favorite band is Pearl Jam, and he's always been tempted to pitch like an Eddie Vedder howl, unleashing primal, paint-peeling fastballs. But he has tamed that feral urge and now uses a tight slider and slow curve to complement his heater.
Before Game 5 Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild was impressed not by Wood's velocity warming up, but by the smoothness of his motion, the ease of his mechanics. "His delivery the first four innings was the best I've ever seen it," Rothschild said. His sustained virtuosity of late—since Sept. 2 he had seven starts, including the two playoff appearances against Atlanta, and was 5-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 65 strikeouts—announces a physical resilience he has not had before.
Despite Wood's 124-pitch marathon in the opener against the Braves, the series was tied heading into Game 3. It was on that frigid Friday night at Wrigley Field that Prior made his first postseason appearance, pitted against 37-year-old master craftsman Greg Maddux, who made his 31st. Prior fired 133 pitches in a complete-game two-hitter, reclaiming the momentum of the series.
As usual Prior buzzed his mid-90s fastball with a laser surgeon's precision, carving the corners at will. He also shaved 5 mph off his curveball during the middle innings, throwing in the high 70s. By comparison, his standard low-80s breaking ball looked so sharp that several befuddled Braves mistook it for a slider, a pitch Prior doesn't use, and he had enough confidence in his curve to throw it consistently in hitters' counts. "You're not necessarily going to see a 2-and-0, 2-and-1 fastball," said Atlanta second baseman Marcus Giles, "and if you do, it's not going to be down the middle."
Wood and Prior chewed through the Braves, holding them to a .111 batting average and striking them out 25 times in 24? innings. Even Atlanta's veteran hitters seemed to swing from their heels all series: Outfielders Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield were a combined 1 for 29 (.034) with nine strikeouts against Wood and Prior.
In the exuberant Florida Marlins, who surprised the San Francisco Giants in four games of their NL Division Series, the Cubs find a club constructed, as Chicago is, around a youthful rotation that has arrived ahead of schedule. Florida's starting quartet of Mark Redman, 29; Brad Penny, 25; Josh Beckett, 23; and Dontrelle Willis, 21, completes an NL Championship Series matchup to do Abbie Hoffman proud: No start will be entrusted to a pitcher over 30. Of the Florida four, Beckett is in the sharpest form. Since coming off the DL (sprained right elbow ligament) on July 1, he has a 2.75 ERA with 107 strikeouts in 101? innings. Beckett has an interesting perspective on the Marlins' chances in the NLCS, saying, "I think with youth, there's a bit of stupidity, and sometimes the youth can be stupid enough to pull [off] something like this."
Though Chicago advanced primarily on the shoulders of Wood and Prior, it hopes to get an improved effort from 21-year-old Carlos Zambrano, who logged a stingy 3.11 ERA over 214 regular-season innings but was nickeled-and-dimed for 11 Braves singles in a Game 2 loss. The entire rotation could benefit from facing a free-swinging Marlins lineup that gets aboard less than Atlanta's, strikes out more and doesn't have nearly as much power. Although the Cubs handled the meat of the Braves' order, they have two new tasks against Florida: keeping jitterbug leadoff man Juan Pierre (204 hits, 65 stolen bases during the season) from consistently getting aboard and cooling off streaking catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who batted .353 with six RBIs against San Francisco.