Top Five: Cubs/Sox Games Of 2011

On Sept. 14, Major League Baseball released its 2011 schedules. What does next year hold for your team, no matter what side of town you root for? That's precisely the topic of this week's "Top Five."

The 2010 baseball season is winding down and it appears playoff baseball in Chicago is all but impossibility. The Chicago White Sox gave fans a fleeting taste of postseason-esque excitement during the first seven innings or so of their most recent series opener against the Minnesota Twins. Sadly, since then, the pesky piranhas have devoured Ozzie and his chums, leaving little hope for one last amazing comeback.

For the Chicago Cubs, well, the season has long been over in the minds of most fans. And it ended mathematically earlier this week. On the bright side, the North Siders probably won’t be quite as bad as they were in 2006 when they won only 66 games. (They sit at 65 wins on Sept. 16.) And there are a number of other hopeful signs to cling to: A strong winning record under new manager Mike Quade. Young producers such as Tyler Colvin, who has hit 20 home runs, and Starlin Castro, who should at least be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. And, honestly, the NL Central looks as winnable as ever. (What is up, St. Louis Cardinals?)

So the question is: What does next season hold for both squads? Although we don’t know precisely what either Chicago baseball team will look like, we do know (more or less) on what dates the games will be played. That’s because, on Sept. 14, Major League Baseball released its tentative 2011 team schedules. Here are our picks for what will surely be the most talked about ballgames on both sides of town:

1. Opening Daze

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has already announced that Opening Day has been cancelled for any professional baseball team playing within the Chicago city limits. Fans are urged to make a pilgrimage to Bud’s statue in Milwaukee to pay their respects.

APRIL FOOLS!

That’s right, both the Cubs and the Sox will kick off the 2011 season on April 1. The South Siders will be at Cleveland to begin a three-game series. From there, they’ll head to Kansas City for a two-game quickie before the home opener at the Cell on Thursday, April 7, against the Tampa Bay Rays. Will the Rays be the defending World Series champs? Maybe. And who will be the Opening Day and Home Opener starting pitcher? Will Mark Buehrle get the honorary nod or will Jake Peavy actually be healthy enough to throw? Get your bets in early. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

Meanwhile, the Cubs will have only their second Opening Day at home in the previous 10 years. (The 2001 and 2008 seasons also began at Wrigley Field.) Playing the role of the villain will be the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are crawling to the 2010 finish line with one of the worst winning percentages in recent memory yet who dominated the Cubs with a 10-5 record this season. If the North Siders want to start the season on a positive note, they must reclaim this particular power dynamic and show the lowly Bucs who’s boss.

We would guess Ryan Dempster will get the Opening Day nod from Cubs manager _______________. Then again, there’s always the possibility Carlos Zambrano will sweet-talk his way into the No. 1 spot again, assuming he doesn’t decide to retire early during the off-season.

2. Crosstown Yadda Yadda

Every year, the mainstream media hype machines crank up their gears to get Chicago fans a-talkin’ trash and a-slingin’ barbs when the Cubs and Sox play their annual interleague games. Naturally, 2011 shall be no different. The festivities will kick off at the Cell on June 20 for the usual three-game series. (Can we serve some herbal tea in the visitor’s dugout, please?) And the Cubs will host the Sox at the Friendly Confines on July 1-3 – a perfect kickoff for the Independence Day weekend.

As always, these games should be a festive, fun and historically minded celebration of Chicago baseball – not a chance to flirt with martial law. So let’s play it cool, OK? Oh, and it remains to be seen whether the rather dubious BP Crosstown Cup will again be in play.

3. Interleague Intrigue

The crosstown series aside, both the Sox and Cubs have some intriguing interleague matchups next year. Let’s start on the South Side: The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay a visit to the Cell on May 20-22. Will Manny Ramirez still be around to face his former team? (Feels iffy. Very iffy.)

The following month, the Sox will face the Arizona Diamondbacks (a showdown with former prospect Daniel Hudson is in the offing), Cubs (as mentioned) and Washington Nationals (don’t expect a Stephen Strasburg sighting as he’ll presumably still be recovering from Tommy John surgery).

For the Cubs, 2011 will be, quite simply, a historic season in terms of interleague play. First and foremost, on May 20, the North Siders will return to Fenway Park to face the Boston Red Sox for the first time since the 1918 World Series as well as the first time since interleague play began. Win or lose, that three-game series is going to be must-see TV for those of us lacking the gumption to track down a ticket and make travel plans. The Cubs will also host the (World Series champion?) New York Yankees June 17-19. That sound you just heard was Wrigleyville vendors, business owners and restaurateurs shrieking with excitement and doing triple back-flips of joy.

4. The Arch Rivals

As of this writing, the White Sox still have one more game to play against the Twins. But, whatever happens in tonight’s season-series-ending matchup, the conclusion to this year’s saga won’t be pretty. The perennially competitive Minnesota team will finish 2010 either 12-6 or 13-5 against the Sox. There’s your season in a nutshell.

Next year, the White Sox will face off against the Twins for the first time on May 3rd and 4th. That’s right, just a quick two-game opportunity for revenge – or at least the chance to set the tone for some payback over the long haul. Of course, it’s possible the Twins could be the defending World Series champs at that point but, well, somehow we doubt it. (The Sox first visit to Target Field will be June 14-16.)

Strangely enough, the Cubs will be on the opposite side of this equation in 2011. Their arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, will be looking for sweet vengeance when the two teams meet for the first time at Wrigley Field on May 10-12. Yes, though the North Siders have had a dismal season overall, they’ve dominated the NL Central picks-to-click with an 8-4 record thus far with three games left to go.

5. Oh, The Oddities

Up until a couple of years ago, the Major League Baseball schedule was hand-crafted by a couple of college professors in New England. Since then, the computers have taken over and, like The Terminator, they are relentless in their efforts to put together confusing, inefficient road trips and backload team schedules with interdivisional play. (OK, the latter is understandable but, well, you’ll see …)

For the White Sox, the regular season will end on the odd note of having the South Siders battle every single AL Central team in September but then play the concluding series against the NL East’s Toronto Blue Jays Sept. 26-28. Oh, and did we mention the season ends on a Wednesday?

The Cubs weirdness comes early and often. By May 4, the Cubs will have completed all of their games against the Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Dodgers. Yes, 22 of the team’s first 31 games are versus those three NL West teams. Maybe that’s a good thing seeing as how the Cubs usually struggle on the left coast – and especially at Chase Field in Phoenix.

In addition, though the Cubs open the season against the Pirates, they won’t visit PNC Park until July, at which point they’ll play seven games there in four weeks. On the bright side, the North Siders have two trips to play the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park within four weeks from late July to late August. They’ve played quite well at "Wrigley North" over the years, so maybe they’ll get a nice boost going into the late months.

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