The past ten games have, in many ways, epitomized the Cubs season: a 5-5 record that consisted of splitting a four game set with the Pittsburgh Pirates, getting swept at home by the Milwaukee Brewers in three games that lacked any semblance of offense, then sweeping the New York Mets by putting up a gaudy 39 runs. Inconsistency seems to be this team’s mantra, leaving us with little understanding of what to expect heading into what right now is the biggest series of the year.
St. Louis, conversely, has been on fire lately, posting a spectacular 8-2 record in their last ten games. They have fought their way into a tie with Milwaukee for second place, just three games behind the Cubbies. They’ll also be matching up with the Cubs for four more games in St. Louis, so it’s understandable to be concerned about the Cubs’ chances to win the division should they falter this weekend. Combine that with Milwaukee’s three game tilt (now at home) against a struggling Marlins team, and yes, this series feels like a must win.
Note: There’s a lot to dissect regarding this series, but I want to focus specifically on the pitching match-ups. For more in depth analysis check out these fine articles from Fangraphs: the Cubs’ 2017 expectations vs. reality, and on St. Louis once again finding a gem of an offensive powerhouse.
Remember when St. Louis surprisingly shipped Mike Leake off to Seattle at the waiver deadline, perplexing their roster and seemingly giving up on the season? That seems like forever ago, and somehow, losing an innings-eating veteran has only strengthened this team. Buttressed by a starting rotation that has been absolutely fantastic this month, St. Louis is, yet again, in the midst of the playoff race. While the Cubs will miss rookie sensation Luke Weaver, and while franchise icon Adam Wainwright remains on the DL, the Cubs have three tough match-ups ahead of them.
Thankfully, the Cubs also have three starters that have been pitching well of late. Let’s dissect these crucial match-ups.
Friday: Carlos Martinez vs. John Lackey
Martinez is an absolute beast, with 200 strikeouts in just 189 IP (a K/9 of 9.52), and a nifty 3.33 ERA (3.4 fWAR) for the season. He throws hard, has a devastating slider, and maintains an aggression/swagger on the mound becoming of a young ace. He also has a tendency to be wild, and while he walks less than the league average (a BB/9 of 3.00) the Cubs can get his pitch count up by showing appropriate restraint. With the team striking out at an above average clip (22%) it’ll be paramount they have patience with Martinez while attacking hittable pitches. This is easier said than done, of course, but in my mind how they approach Martinez early will set the tone for this game.
If you know me, you know I have my qualms regarding John Lackey. He is, however, coming off of a brilliant start against Milwaukee (7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER) and in his last three starts boasts an ERA of 2.83. This is a big game, and Lackey seems to desire being in such situations. A quality start from Lackey would go a long way in helping secure a win to open the series.
Saturday: Michael Wacha vs. Kyle Hendricks
Michael Wacha has had a bit of an up-and-down year, but in his last three starts he is 3-0 with a paltry ERA of 1.80. He’s a known commodity, and while he doesn’t boast outrageous strikeout numbers he does have an average velocity of 94 MPH on his fastball this year. Cubs hitters have fared well against Wacha, however, particularly Anthony Rizzo (.484 BA, 3 HR in 31 career at-bats). While I think he’s a fine pitcher, I expect this to be the Cubs best opportunity to put up crooked numbers.
When Kyle Hendricks came off the DL this summer he left his first half struggles behind him. He’s pitching to the tune of a 2.58 ERA in 10 starts in the second half, and while he has showed glimpses of being shaky at times, he remains one of the better under-the-radar pitchers in baseball. He doesn’t seem phased by big situations (game seven of the World Series, anyone?) and it’s not outlandish to suggest he will pitch well on Saturday. I don’t like going about projecting stat lines or game outcomes, but I’m more confident in expecting a win Saturday than I am either two games.
Sunday: Lance Lynn vs. Jose Quintana
Lance Lynn feels like a guy that’s been around forever. He doesn’t throw terribly hard (91.7 MPH FB in 2017), walks guys at a slightly above average clip (3.42 BB/9) and is somewhat susceptible to the long ball (1.27 HR/9, essentially league average). No one against the Cubs has a ton of experience against him, save for Rizzo, who has hit a devastating .344 with 2 HR in 32 career AB against him. With Lynn on fire lately (1.89 ERA his last three starts) I expect to see a confident pitcher that pitches deep into this ballgame.
Jose Quintana has been a mixed bag since coming over to the Cubs, but all told he’s done pretty well (3.88 ERA in 65 IP) since being traded for. He’s 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in his last three starts, and with his first real taste of a pennant race it’ll be fun to see how he responds – especially if Sunday ends up being a rubber match.
The best possible news leading into this series is that the Cubs happen to be 8-4 against the Cardinals this year. And while that record is relatively benign in that it has no actual bearing on this weekend, it does provide a bit of a morale boost. In other words, I think we’ll see a Cubs team that is both confident and relaxed. Despite their inconsistency they don’t seem phased, which happens when you’ve proven you know how to win.
Truthfully, this series excites me as much as it worries me. Playoff caliber baseball in the waning phases of a pennant race against your storied (and hated!) rival is a beautiful thing, indeed. I remain convinced it’s impossible to predict how the Cubs will fare this weekend, but I maintain a cautious optimism they’ll play inspired ball. A series win is quite doable, and, frankly, necessary. Let’s hope they get it done.