Just over a week ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that won one game in Wrigley Field in 2016, tripled that total for 2017. It was a series that embarrassed the North Side, as the Cubs’ bullpen blew a lead in all three games, and the Bucs’ became the first (and still only) team to sweep the Cubbies in 2017. The Pirates stunned the Cubs last time, and now the Cubs are out for revenge.
Previewing the Cubs
Ever since Anthony Rizzo‘s game-tying ninth inning homer on Friday night, he has been unstoppable; he totaled eight RBIs in this series and homered in every single game. Rizzo’s outstanding performance, however, mirrors the entire Cubs team. The offense tallied 24 runs this series, by far their highest total of 2017. Rizzo joined only Jason Heyward, Javier Baez, and Willson Contreras in homering this weekend, but every single Cub got at least one hit (with the exceptions of Matt Szczur, who had one at-bat, and Albert Almora, who, after a red-hot start, has gone ice-cold in recent days).
In the Cubs’ first series against the Pirates, Joe Maddon started the same lineup every single game: Schwarber LF, Bryant 3B, Rizzo 1B, Zobrist RF, Russell SS, Heyward CF, the catcher (either Montero or Contreras), the pitcher, 2B Baez. Since that weekend, Maddon has continued his precedent of mixing and matching the offensive starters, but it will be interesting to see if this order is Pittsburgh-specific. I, for one, hope that Joe gets Jon Jay some more plate appearances, as the lefty has hit .333 so far this year, and is tied for the team lead (with Montero).
Last series against the Bucs’, the bullpen was just plain awful. They recovered and had a very nice series against the Brewers last week, but slightly regressed to a more iffy weekend set against the Reds. Because of the recent inconsistency, this week’s games could be our best indication of what this bullpen is really made of.
Carl Edwards and Wade Davis continue to be perfect this year (zero runs allowed between the two), Mike Montgomery has appeared to have settled down despite a very rocky start (hasn’t given up a run since last Monday), but Brian Duensing can not seem to stop giving up runs. His ERA is up to 10.13, and has surrendered runs in three of his five outings (multiple runs in two of them). It would definitely seem as though his days wearing Cubbie blue are numbered (or, at least, I hope so).
The three starters that will head out to the mound in Pittsburgh this week are Brett Anderson, Kyle Hendricks, and Jon Lester. Anderson was off to a fantastic start in his Cubs career until he faced the Brewers overpowered offense last Tuesday. The Cubs won the game, but Anderson, well, didn’t help much. He was chased from the contest after three and two-thirds innings after giving up six runs on eight hits. In that one outing, his ERA shot up by 3.56. Seriously. Watch to see if he can get back on elite track or if he continues his collapse back into normality.
After winning the ERA title in 2016, Hendricks has, to put it simply, struggled in 2017. He hasn’t allowed less than three runs in any outing to this point and hasn’t lasted past the sixth inning. He faced the Pirates in their previous series and had his “best” outing by giving up three earned on six hits in five innings. The professor desperately needs to get back on track; if he loses his dominance, something that anchored the outstanding starting pitching of 2016, it will be very difficult for the Cubs to repeat last year’s success.
Lester has been the best starter on the north side this year, and it isn’t even close. He struggled in the series opener in Cincinnati, giving up five runs in five and two-thirds innings, but, prior to that, hadn’t given more than one run in any start. He dominated Pittsburgh his last time out, and shut them out through seven strong. The bullpen blew that game, but with Edwards back and Duensing doubted by Maddon, a wasted Lester start is very unlikely to repeat itself.
Previewing the Pirates
The Bucs’ come into this game in dead last in the National League Central. To be fair, the National League Central is incredibly compact, so while this match-up is between first and last place, they’re only two games separating the two. Theoretically, if the Pirates pull out another sweep (it hurts even to type), they would be ahead of the Cubs despite starting on opposite ends of the division. But let’s not think of that.
The Pirates are coming off of a series in which they managed to stop the streaking Yankees by taking two of three. Solid pitching was the key to their two wins, holding the Yankees to four runs combined in the two games.
Obviously, the main offensive difference between this series and last is Starling Marte; the career .288 hitter center fielder was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for PEDs. In terms of players to watch out for this week, look no further than David Freese, slashing .315/.415/.537, who leads the Pirates in nearly every offensive category. Cub-killer Andrew McCutchen is tied with him in home runs (both have three), and the two could potentially make a deadly duo.
Chad Kuhl, starting the opener, has had a very solid year, as no team has been able to put up more than two runs against him yet. That being said, the Cubs had no issues with him last year in his rookie season. They scored twelve runs off of him across three separate starts, in which Kuhl averaged just over three innings per outing. Should the Cubs continue this trend of tattooing poor Chad, it will be near impossible for even Duensing to give away game one.
The Cubs faced both Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow earlier this season, to completely different results. Cole had one of his best 2017 starts, giving up only two runs on six hits in six innings. Glasnow did not fare as well; he gave up six runs (four earned) in only five innings. The Bucs’ eventually won both, but, again, that was really due to separate Cubs bullpen blowups, and not the Pirates’ pitching. The Cubs don’t necessarily need to get out to early leads, though, as they will be opposing a below-average Pirates pen in the later innings, and, as you know, they can’t stop scoring late in the game. Who knows, maybe the #ComebackCubs will have an encore reappearance.
Game Times, How to Watch and Listen
Monday, April 24 – 6:05 p.m. / WGN (ESPN for those of you not in Chicago) / AM 670 The Score
Tuesday, April 25 – 6:05 p.m. / WGN / AM 670 The Score
Wednesday, April 26 – 6:05 p.m. / CSN-Chicago / AM 670 The Score
Anderson gets back on track and throws a perfect game in the opener to out-duel Kuhl, Hendricks’s six innings of two-run ball is supported by a recovering bullpen and a three-run homer from Kyle Schwarber for the win in game two, and Lester’s perfect game leads the Cubs to the ultimate 23-0 vengeance win in game three.
Revenge is a dish best served cold.