CHICAGO -- The Toddlin' Town is atwitter with an unparalleled crosstown series, a matchup of the Cubs and White Sox like no other.
Because of the team's rather downtrodden histories, just having either club in first place would be a novelty. Having both teams in first place at the same time is akin to walking on the surface of the moon. So it's a big weekend in Chicago, capped by Sunday night's series finale at Wrigley Field on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball."
Although the hype and anticipation for this series (and next week's across town at U.S. Cellular Field, which also concludes on ESPN) have been off the charts, baseball has a funny habit of intruding upon the Mardi Gras-like atmosphere. And though it's not as much as fun as chanting fans and beer in the bleachers, baseball usually comes down to a tired old thing called starting pitching.
Both the Cubs and the White Sox have made their way to first place behind two of baseball's better starting rotations. And among those solid pitchers, none right now has become more important than Ryan Dempster, who starts Sunday for the Cubs.
Dempster arrives with a 8-2 record and a 2.76 ERA. All eight of his wins have come at Wrigley Field, where he is unbeaten. Dempster has been tough to hit, with opponents batting only .192 against him.
His smooth transition from the bullpen back to the rotation has been vital to the Cubs' hold on first place in the National League Central. And Dempster's importance has become magnified this week now that Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano has landed on the disabled list with a tender shoulder.
Cubs GM Jim Hendry stressed all day Saturday that the club did not consider the injury serious and that Zambrano was expected to miss only two starts. However, a pitcher's shoulders can be unpredictable. So Dempster's continued excellence is a must if the Cubs are to continue their first-place run.
Though the Cubs expressed confidence throughout the offseason that they had complete confidence in Dempster's successfully making the move to the rotation, no one could have predicted his success to this point. But he may be showing some early signs of wearing down: He has not pitched into the sixth inning in each of his past three starts.
Dempster set the stage for his season with intensive conditioning work leading into spring training.
"I like to think that I always worked hard to get myself ready for another season," said Dempster. "But I probably took it to another level last winter because of the work I needed to do to get ready to go from throwing 70 innings out of the bullpen to hopefully throwing 200-plus out of the rotation.
"I worked hard on strengthening my lower body and my shoulder for the added workload. And I threw much of the winter working on improving my fastball command, which is usually the key to any starting pitcher being successful. With the fastball being thrown for strikes comes all the other pitches. More than anything that's been the most important thing for me, and I've felt great right from the start. Now I just want to keep it going."
Way back in February, Dempster tried to set a tone for the Cubs' season by predicting they would win the World Series and end the franchise's fabled 100-year drought.
"I just did it really to make the point that this was a whole new year, that whatever has happened here before has nothing to do with this season," said Dempster.
"It's not exactly a secret that they haven't won here in 100 years. It's why the atmosphere around here is so unbelievable all the time. It's why the people here are so excited when we're winning.
"But as players we have to just be conscious of playing the next game, whether it's in this crazy series with the White Sox or any other time. And from the beginning of spring training, there was always the feeling that we really liked our team. We all felt this was a team that had a lot going for it, that it was a good mix of young guys and veterans and just as importantly liked each other."
Dempster also is quick to point to one of the Cubs' young players, catcher Geovany Soto, as one of the club's keys.
"He gets a lot of attention from how well he swings the bat," Dempster said. "But he takes a lot more pride in becoming a better catcher, in being able to improve as a handler of pitchers. He'll strike out at the plate, come back to the dugout and sit with the pitcher, asking him how he wants to pitch to the hitters in the next inning. The guy just really cares about being a complete catcher, and all our pitchers really appreciate how hard he works."
Dempster will oppose Javier Vazquez, who as usual has been a solid part of the White Sox's rotation. Vazquez is the only pitcher in baseball to make at least 30 starts, win at least 10 games and strike out at least 150 batters in each of his past eight seasons.
It's a streak he likely will extend, as he's again among American League leaders in strikeouts and innings pitched while carrying a 7-5 record. Behind his pitching Sunday night, the White Sox try to avoid being swept in the Friendly Confines.
Peter Pascarelli is the lead researcher for "Sunday Night Baseball." He will preview each Sunday night game all season long. He is also co-host of the Baseball Today podcast, which runs Monday through Friday on ESPN.com.