The Cubs, coming off of a pair of exhilarating victories (in which they became the #ComebackCubs), leave Chicago for the first time in eleven days, and venture into Cincinnati for a potentially crucial early-season series.
SIDE NOTE – Hey, remember the Cubs’ last game in Ohio?
This upcoming three-game weekend set pits the two teams currently atop a competitive National League Central against each other; the Reds, sitting in first at 9-7, lead the Cubs (8-7) by one half of a game. Given their proximity in the standings, a dominant performance by either club could potentially put them in a very envious early-season spot on top of the division.
The Cubs could, then, take over first, or be even further from it. Contrary to last season, when the North Siders’ led the National League Central start-to-finish, they still haven’t had a single day in which they led by themselves in 2017.
Previewing the Cubs
So in case you’ve missed the last few days, the Cubs’ offense has this new thing where they don’t really do anything except stick somewhat close to their opponents until the late innings, when they strike, scoring a bazillion runs and winning. If it wins games, I’m cool with it, but let’s see if they can get out to some earlier leads this weekend and make it easier on all of us fans (plus, getting out to early leads is vital this weekend, you’ll see why later).
The hottest bats belong to Miguel Montero, who came into this past series without a single hit this season and is now slashing .316/.350/.474. Albert Almora Jr. is continuing his phenomenal season, hitting to a line of .391/.440/.609. In terms of everyday starters, however (both Almora and Montero see limited playing time), Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo lead the team, batting .294 and .293, respectively.
While the bullpen ruined multiple fantastic starts against Pittsburgh almost a week ago, it actually saved some pretty terrible starts against Milwaukee. Carl Edwards Jr. is back from the bereavement list, which is the biggest reason that the bullpen has completely transformed. Edwards and Wade Davis are the only two Cubs pitchers that, to this point, have not allowed a single run (although Edwards has been bailed out). Brian Duensing may quite possibly be pitching for his life on this team, despite his valuable left-handedness, as he’s struggled (opponents are hitting .333 off of him!) and hasn’t been able to prove himself. For a more detailed look at the bullpen, check out Jason Callan’s in-depth diagnosis yesterday.
On the flip side, the starting pitching, which had been fantastic all season, seemingly fell apart against Milwaukee. I would blame their struggles on the Brewers’ potent offense, including infamous Cub-killer Ryan Braun and the hottest hitter in the game Eric Thames, but, since the bullpen did a pretty nice job of shutting them down, there’s nowhere to point the finger but at the sloppy starting.
In the Brewers’ three first innings this past week, they scored a combined seven times (2,3,2). After some incredibly deep thinking, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that digging a sizeable hole for your team is not the ideal way to win baseball games. The Cubs may have taken two of three, but relying on the #ComebackCubs constantly is, obviously, not the smartest plan. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are the two blameless starters, as both have had terrific beginnings to the year and neither got shellacked by Milwaukee. Joe Maddon has flipped them for the second time this year, so Lester is pitching first this weekend, but they will cover two of the three starts against the Reds regardless. John Lackey will be closing the series out, watch to see if he can rebound after an outing in which he gave up four runs on seven hits in six innings.
Previewing the Reds
How are the Cincinnati Reds, a team that went 68-94 last year, finished 35.5 games behind the Cubs, and had a relatively quiet offseason, in first place? It’s simple – their pitching, an Achilles’ heel like no other in 2016, has been dominant in 2017. Last year the pitching staff accumulated a total 4.91 ERA, good for third-worst in the Major League Baseball. This year, that ERA is 3.36. Four of their five starters have sub-3 ERAs, with the exception of Bronson Arroyo (yes, the same Bronson Arroyo that played from 2000-2014 and then fell out of relevance is now a starter – THAT’S how bad the Reds were supposed to be this year), who only gave up three runs in five innings to a very dangerous Baltimore Orioles lineup in his last outing.
Their bullpen has seen an even more drastic turnaround. Last year, the Reds’ bullpen was so bad that they set the record for most consecutive games allowing a run (23) AND both the entire staff and the specific bullpen set their own respective records for most home runs allowed across the duration of the entire year. Basically, their ‘pen was one of the all-time worst. Yet this year, their ‘pen has a 2.40 ERA (fifth best in the MLB) and their opponents are hitting a mere .187 off of them. If you think the #ComebackCubs are going to be able to do what they just did twice against this bullpen, think again. Early leads will be necessary.
Their offense hasn’t been horrible either. Both Zack Cozart and Eugenio Suarez are off to scorching starts, slashing .405/.490/.667 and .354/.426/.667 respectively. The long ball, instead of routinely harming the Reds as it did last year, has been routinely helping them this season. Cincinnati has five guys that have hit 3+ homers this year (in contrast, the Cubs have one in Kyle Schwarber): 2016 Home Run Derby competitor Adam Duvall, Scooter Gennett, Scott Schebler, the aforementioned Suarez, and, of course, the one perennial powerhouse on the Reds’ roster, Joey Votto. He’s off to a slow start in terms of his average and OBP, but I guarantee he will be a factor this weekend as he’s a notorious Cub killer.
GAME-TIMES, HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN
Friday, April 21 6:10 PM / WGN / AM 670 The Score
Saturday, April 22 12:20 PM / ABC 7 / AM 670 The Score
Sunday, April 23 12:20 PM / CSN-Chicago / AM 670 The Score
Sunday (welcome back to 2007, everyone!)
Lester and Arrieta throw back-to-back perfect games ahead of the new Cubs offense, and the Cubs take over the division lead, but lose ground on Sunday as Lackey continues his struggles and the Reds’ offense finally gets revenge.