After winning their third consecutive series on Thursday with a decisive victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs (6-3) welcome the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates (3-6) into town.
The Cubbies sit a half game behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central, while the Bucs sit tied for fourth place (so, technically, also tied in last place) with the St. Louis Cardinals, which is especially surprising because these two teams were the two expected to give the Cubs the most competition.
Thus, this series provides the Cubs with a valuable opportunity early on to push the Pirates further behind them (the Cubs could, at best, have a six game lead over Pittsburgh by Monday), making it significantly harder for any comeback later in 2017.
The Cubs have taken two of three in all three series this year (continuing at that rate for the entire season translates into a 108-54 year-end record, if you were curious), with all three coming down to a third game rubber match. After their brief three-game winning streak was cut short by the Dodgers on Wednesday, the Cubbies potentially began a new one by topping the National League West favorites, 4-0. Starting pitcher Brett Anderson went five strong innings, and Carl Edwards, Koji Uehara, and Wade Davis finished the combined shutout.
The Cubs’ pitching staff was absolutely dominant against the dynamic Dodgers lineup, allowing merely four runs in the three game set, and only two were earned. The best part? Every pitcher in the bullpen appeared in this series, and they collectively pitched ten innings with zero earned runs allowed. Seeing as how this pen was far and away the largest question mark entering this season, nothing could be more encouraging. Expect this mastery to continue, as the Pirates offense has been struggling, to say the least; entering play on Thursday, the Bucs ranked 28th in the MLB in runs scored, and their highest single game run total to this point is six.
The starters have also all looked great out of the gate, with the exception of Kyle Hendricks, who will open this weekend series. Hendricks went six innings against the Brewers in his first 2017 start, but gave up four earned runs on five hits and a walk. Not a bad stat line by any means, but also not the stat line we have become used to seeing from Kyle by any means. Facing an anemic Pirates offense could be what’s necessary to re-position Hendricks back into his newly found ace status.
Offensively, the majority of the lineup regressed during their three game stretch against Los Angeles. After exploding while facing the Brewers, the Cubs managed only seven runs against the Dodgers. Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Ben Zobrist are all batting under .250, and, despite some first-of-the-season homers from Rizzo and Russell on Thursday, only five Cubs have homered to this point. On the flip side, Albert Almora, Jr. (who showed some absolutely stellar defense on Thursday – seriously, this guy is really really good in center) is still hitting an even .500 and has an OPS of 1.155. Jason Heyward has remained solid through a pitching-dominated series, and is still (can you believe it?) hitting .290.
The Cubs have been consistently good and the Pirates have been anything but. They’ve been swept in two of their three series this year (against the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds) and have obtained all three of their wins from the worst team in the National League, the Atlanta Braves.
David Freese is the only starter hitting above .300 for the struggling Pirates offense, but the majority are still contributing. Former all-star Andrew McCutchen, who had an underwhelming 2016 season, is hitting a mere .250, but other everyday starters, namely Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and Josh Harrison, are all hitting .259 or above.
The Pirates’ pitching hasn’t been much better than their hitting. Entering Thursday’s games, they owned the MLB’s 25th best ERA, at 4.84. Three of their four starters have sub-3.00 ERAs, but two, Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, have struggled. The majority of the blame lies in their bullpen, which has managed to rack up a 5.68 ERA through their first nine games. Opponents are hitting almost .300 off of the group as well. Both of the aforementioned struggling starters will be forced to oppose the powerful Cubs offense, but when the young Jameson Taillon, who sports a 1.38 ERA, steps on the mound for Sunday’s game, Pittsburgh’s bullpen may be put in an important spot.
Game Times, Where to Watch/Listen
Friday, April 14 1:20 PM CST / TV – WGN / Radio – AM 670 The Score
Saturday, April 15 1:20 PM CST / TV – CSN-Chicago / Radio – AM 670 The Score
Sunday, April 16 1:20 PM CST / TV – WGN / Radio – AM 670 The Score
My Series Prediction
Hendricks and Cole both return to ace form in the series opener, and nobody scores until Kris Bryant hits his first homer of the year in the bottom of the ninth for the win. Arrieta and Lester continue their dominance, Pittsburgh scores merely one run in the series, and the Cubs get their first sweep.
And, of course, at least one perfect game will be thrown by a Cubs pitcher.