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Key questions: Cubs, Braves

1. How healthy is John Smoltz?
The Braves say Smoltz is fine, even though he allowed his first two-run inning of the season Saturday in Philadelphia. He may have gotten hit, but at least all of Smoltz's six outs in his last two appearances have come on strikeouts. But even if Smoltz is healthy, that doesn't mean he isn't rusty. Since Aug. 2, a span of 52 games, he has pitched exactly seven innings and thrown only 54 pitches. By comparison, Cubs closer Joe Borowski has worked 18 1/3 innings and thrown 305 pitches since then. Every scout we surveyed thought Smoltz could be the key to the series. "It's critical not just that he be healthy," said one scout, "but that he be SMOLTZ."

2. Do the Cubs have the kind of pitching to shut down the Braves' offense?
You could make a case, of course, that the Cubs have the kind of pitching that can shut down ANYBODY. But they figure to roll out four righthanded starters in this series. And that creates an interesting matchup, since the Braves had the best batting average in the league (.284) against righthanders and had the best record in the league (77-48) in games started by righthanders. Against the Cubs' right-handers, though, it could be another story. Kerry Wood never faced the Braves this year -- but he's 2-0, 2.14 in five career starts against them. And if you toss out the game this season in which Mark Prior got hurt crashing into Marcus Giles, he has a 2.70 career ERA against them.

"To beat the Braves," says one advance scout, "you have to pound them on the thumbs, bury them inside, because they're so close to the plate. You can jam all of them except (Gary) Sheffield with good fastballs. And if you throw them good sliders or curves, they'll chase. But if you throw them just regular old breaking balls, boy, can they launch."

3. Does Sammy Sosa have to have a great series for the Cubs to win?
Sosa obliterated Braves pitching this year (13 for 25, .520 avg., 4 HR, 11 RBI) -- but the Cubs still lost four of six. And in his only previous postseason appearance, he hit .182, with no homers, no RBI and just one walk in the 1998 Division Series against the Braves -- and the Cubs got swept. Still, on a team that scored almost 200 fewer runs than the Braves, Sosa is obviously the most important offensive component. "Compared to a guy like Bonds, I think Sammy is easily pitched to in games like these," says one scout. "Barry is willing to take a walk, but Sammy loves the spotlight. He loves to swing the bat. So you can capitalize on his aggressiveness, get him to chase and strike him out."

4. How does Atlanta's pitching measure up to previous Braves staffs?
It's hard to say which part of the Braves' staff scouts are troubled by most -- their rotation or their bullpen. Their starters' ERA was 4.16 -- seventh in the league and more than half a run higher than last year (3.42). But their bullpen ERA was 3.98 -- sixth in the league and up by nearly a run and a half over last year (2.60). Take away Smoltz, and the bullpen ERA explodes to 4.43. "Of all the teams in the postseason, they're the team that most needs seven innings out of their starters," says one scout. "To beat the Braves, you've got to be patient, wear down their starters and get into their setup relief. To me, every one of their setup men is vulnerable."

5. The Cubs haven't won a postseason series since 1908. Is this the year?
It's almost impossible to lose 10 consecutive postseason series -- but hey, they're the Cubs. This year, though, they're a team nobody wants to face. Of all the teams in the playoffs, the Cubs' staff has thrown the most shutouts (14, tied with Oakland), has been the most unhittable (.241 opponents average) and has more strikeout pitchers (SIX different Cubs average more than a strikeout an inning). They certainly have other warts. But if Wood and Prior do any kind of Schilling-Johnson imitation, this is a team that can ride its dominant pitching all the way to a parade. "When you've got power pitching in October," says one scout, "you can catch lightning in a bottle." And when Wood, Prior and Carlos Zambrano pitch, you won't have to look hard to find that lightning.

Prediction: Cubs in five.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.