One month down, five (six if you count October) to go. The Cubs lead their division, which we all expected, but they’re only up one game on the Cardinals and have a very underachieving record of 13-11.
April showers supposedly bring May flowers, so hopefully the systemic struggles that have plagued the Cubbies to this point can be resolved and the team can blossom into the 100+ win team we all know that they are.
They’ll try to start that process this week as they face the Philadelphia Phillies at home for their first four-game series of 2017.
PREVIEWING THE CUBS
Despite their obvious struggles, the Cubs’ record appears much worse than the team has actually played this year. They’re two games over .500 but have won six of their eight series and have only lost by more than three runs twice (one of which being last night’s late-inning meltdown). The common factor in their recent struggles can really just be attributed to subpar starting pitching.
Both Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have had very similar seasons; following a hot start, both have struggled in their last two outings. Lester had an even 1.00 ERA the morning of April 21, but gave up five runs on nine hits in five and two-thirds innings to the Reds that night and, in his next start, surrendered six runs (five earned) on 10 hits in the same duration to the Pirates. Arrieta had a 2.89 ERA and had come one out shy of three straight quality starts on April 22, but then got hammered for four runs in the first inning against the Reds and then was beat down for five in the first inning against the Red Sox last Friday. He was able to calm down after both devastating first innings, but the Cubs weren’t able to overcome Friday’s deficit.
Unfortunately, this first inning mess hasn’t been exclusive to Lester and Arrieta. Of their 24 games this season, the Cubs have trailed first in 12 of them. They’ve been losing after the first inning alone in three of their past four games and five of their past eight.
While Brett Anderson rebounded from a poor start successfully last outing and appears to be back on track, John Lackey has struggled nonstop. He’s been a workhorse, giving his team six innings even every start, but has given up four or more runs in four of five starts. His ERA has worsened every outing since April 12. Lackey must turn this around if the Cubs want to succeed, and opposing a relatively weak Phillies lineup could be a start.
The bullpen had been fantastic up until last night. They maintained a 17 inning scoreless streak until the eighth inning meltdown, and if I see somebody blame Pedro Strop one more time I will lose my mind. In 11 appearances in 2017, he’s allowed a run in merely two of them, but that’s irrelevant in this case. Last night he did everything absolutely perfectly save for one walk in which he threw one wild pitch. Everything else falls on Koji Uehara, who has struggled when not given time to rest in between outings. Also, your semi-weekly update for Carl Edwards and Wade Davis: still perfect. One month done, and neither of them have given up a single run.
Offensively, the Cubs have been tasked with overcoming early deficits but have been able to do that successfully (for the most part). Their biggest issue has been the inability to come up clutch. Despite the seventh best team batting average (.259) and the sixth best OPS (.764), their average with runners in scoring position is the 17th best in the bigs (.245). When there are two outs, that number drops to .216. In big moments, the Cubbies have been unable to come through.
In terms of specific players, Miguel Montero and Jon Jay continue to lead the team in batting average and OPS with a limited number of plate appearances, but Kris Bryant has surpassed everybody else, unleashing his inner MVP self during a current 11-game hitting streak. He doubled his total number of homers this weekend in Fenway (from two to four) and has raised his average to .289 after a horrific start to the season.
Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist are on the opposite end of the spectrum, hitting .204 and .216 respectively. Schwarber, as the leadoff man, must get going. If not, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joe Maddon change him out for someone else.
PREVIEWING THE PHILLIES
The Phillies come into this contest fresh off of being swept at the hands of the Dodgers, but won six consecutive games prior. As evidenced by their near-perfectly mediocre record of 11-12, Philadelphia has really just been average this season in almost every statistical category.
Entering Sunday’s slate of games, the Phillies ranked ninth in batting average (.256), 12th in OPS (.741), 21st in home runs (27), and 19th in hits (191). Pitching-wise, they ranked 18th in ERA (4.24) and 17th in opponent batting average (.248). The one category in which they are of a notable ranking is walks, as they’ve allowed the second-least amount of walks of any pitching staff in the MLB (63). In other words, Cubs players are probably not going to get very many free passes this weekend (which is something they’ve capitalized on, taking the sixth-most of them in the league).
César Hernández leads Philly’s everyday starters with an average of .323, an OPS of .906, and is tied for the team lead with four homers. He’s also the team’s leadoff hitter, meaning that he’ll get plenty of looks against Cub pitching this week.
Daniel Nava is another name of note. Though he made the team as a bench player, he’s excelled when given playing time (reminds me of a specific Cub I’ve mentioned before). He’s batting .344 with a 1.094 OPS, but with approximately one-third of everybody else’s plate appearances.
In terms of their starters, both Jeremy Hellickson and Zach Eflin are significantly outperforming expectations. Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer this past offseason, and has posted three straight quality starts. Eflin, called up June 2016, had an up-and-down first half-season, but seems to have hit his stride this year, having posted back-to-back quality starts after starting the season on the DL.
GAMETIMES, HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN
Monday, May 1 7:05 p.m. / CSN-C+ / AM 670 The Score
Tuesday, May 2 7:05 p.m. / CSN-C / AM 670 The Score
Wednesday, May 3 7:05 p.m. / CSN-C / AM 670 The Score
Thursday, May 4 1:20 p.m. / WGN / AM 670 The Score
LHP Brett Anderson (2-0, 3.54 ERA, 1.57 WHIP) vs. RHP Vince Velasquez (1-2, 6.33 ERA, 1.55 WHIP)
LHP Jon Lester (0-1, 3.68 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson (4-0, 1.80 ERA, 0.80 WHIP)
RHP Jake Arrieta (3-1, 4.66 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) vs. RHP Jerad Eickhoff (0-2, 3.56 ERA, 1.25 WHIP)
RHP John Lackey (2-3, 5.10 ERA, 1.33 WHIP) vs. RHP Zach Eflin (0-0, 1.89 ERA, 0.68 WHIP)
Anderson continues to be the Cubs’ best starter of the year, posting seven innings and giving up two runs on Monday, and Bryant stays hot with a three-run homer early on, guiding his team to a 5-2 victory. Lester gives up a homer in the first inning but then doesn’t allow a baserunner for the rest of eight innings, just outdoing his predecessor Anderson and helping the Cubs take game two 7-1 behind hot hitting from Jon Jay and Anthony Rizzo. Jake Arrieta throws a perfect game on Wednesday (what, you didn’t think I’d forget, did you?) and Bryant’s sixth homer wins game three, but Lackey finally gets taken out after five when he gives up eight runs and the Cubs fall just short of their first sweep of 2017.