As I said in the Bullets this morning, you can’t get too obsessive about a May series, but when the two teams are among the clear best in the National League, and extremely likely to be among the teams fighting it out for a division crown come August and September, you get a little more amped up.
So it is with the Cubs and Pirates this week, each team knowing that a series win here could go a long way to helping out later in the year. The Cubs will miss frequent source of frustration Francisco Liriano in this one, and will also get to toss out their own top two starters. I like the way this series matches up for the Cubs, even on the road, and especially if they can steal the opener, which matches up a hot Jason Hammel against Pirates ace Gerrit Cole.
It’s also fair to get a little more amped up because this is the first time these teams have met since an incredible Wild Card Game last October in Pittsburgh.
We’re Going Streaking
The Cubs had won four in a row before dropping yesterday’s extra-innings tilt with the Braves. Still, you can go back to the beginning of the season and craft a nice streak for the Cubs: 17 of their last 23. Just, you know, don’t go back any further than that. Unless you’re not counting the playoffs. Then go back all you want. Well, not too far back. OK, I’m going to move on now.
The Cubs weren’t the only team to drop their most recent game in extra innings to a team that probably should have tried harder to lose it. The Pirates had won six in a row before losing in 11 to the Reds yesterday. They stand three games back of the Cubs in the NL Central right now.
Game Times and Broadcasts
- Monday, May 2 at 6:05 CT on CSN, ESPN, MLBN, 670 The Score
- Tuesday, May 3 at 6:05 CT on WPWR, MLBN, 670 The Score
- Wednesday, May 4 at 11:35 CT on CSN, MLBN, 670 The Score
Expected Starters and Lineups
These lineups are likely to be pretty close to what actually gets fielded, but you’ll want to check each day’s Pre-Gamin’ post for the actual lineup.
- Jason Hammel (0.75 ERA, 2.47 FIP; 2.44 K/BB)
- Jake Arrieta (1.00 ERA, 2.83 FIP; 3.20 K/BB)
- Jon Lester (1.83 ERA, 3.26 FIP; 4.71 K/BB)
- Dexter Fowler, CF
- Jason Heyward, RF
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B
- Ben Zobrist, 2B
- Jorge Soler, LF (Javy Baez and Tommy La Stella also get in by way of this slot)
- Addison Russell, SS
- David Ross/Tim Federowicz, C
- Gerrit Cole (2.78 ERA, 2.75 FIP; 3.17 K/BB)
- Jonathan Niese (5.08 ERA, 5.77 FIP; 2.44 K/BB)
- Juan Nicasio (3.33 ERA, 3.68 FIP; 2.42 K/BB)
- John Jaso, 1B
- Andrew McCutchen, CF
- Josh Harrison, 2B
- Starling Marte, LF
- Gregory Polanco, RF
- David Freese, 3B
- Francisco Cervelli, C
- Jordy Mercer, SS
Hot or Not and Whom to Watch
It’s no secret that Jason Heyward is not off to a stellar offensive start with the Cubs, and, while that doesn’t concern me in the least, the numbers are stark: .211/.317/.256. On the plus side, his extreme (and unhelpful) groundball rate from 2015 has come back down to his normal career numbers this year, and he is getting the ball in the air more often. On the down side, his quality of contact seems to be down so far this year. Even that’s so small sample, though, that I don’t think you can take too much from it. Heyward isn’t always at his best in April (as many hitters aren’t), so I’m gonna fall back on the old have-some-patience card.
Other than Dexter Fowler, you know who the Cubs’ top two hitters are by wRC+ if you set the minimum plate appearances at 30? It’s benchmen Matt Szczur (173) and Tommy La Stella (189). Indeed, La Stella’s figure tops even that of Fowler (185) … of course, Dexter’s done it over 67 more plate appearances.
He missed a game in there with the ankle injury, but Kris Bryant is working a seven-game hitting streak, in which he’s hit a robust .407/.515/.741.
If you were a crazy person, you could make an argument that Jake Arrieta is coming off of back-to-back not-quite-Arrieta-like starts. Yup, the first of those two was the no-hitter in Cincinnati, and the second was a game in which he allowed just one run. Still, he wasn’t quite at his sharpest, and wasn’t able to command/locate all of his pitches throughout each of those two starts. And, like I said, the guy threw a no-hitter and allowed one run in the other start. So, yeah, you’d have to be a crazy person to say anything other than: he’s good.
Not entirely unlike the Cubs, the two best hitters on the Pirates this year, by wRC+, have come off the bench: Matt Joyce (242) and Sean Rodriguez (208). Each will see time in this series.
Otherwise, the biggest bat for the Pirates has clearly been Gregory Polanco, who may finally be in the middle of the breakout that many could see coming when he was laying waste to the upper minors in the way that future stars tend to. Polanco, who signed an extension in the offseason, is hitting .315/.422/.539, and there’s been nothing flukey about it. He’s hitting for power, he’s not striking out, he’s taking walks, and he’s absolutely scalding the ball. Beware, Cubs pitchers.
Virtually every other Pirates regular has been above average offensively this year, too, and the team’s 122 wRC+ (holy crap that’s high!) leads all of baseball. I do find it interesting that the entirety of the difference between their offense and that of the Cubs (109 wRC+) is BABIP-fueled, as the Cubs look better in just about every other way. The Pirates’ .344 BABIP leads baseball, while the Cubs’ .289 is 19th. To be fair, the Pirates have several line drive hitters and a bunch of guys with great speed, so they’re predisposed to having an elevated BABIP. But I could say the same thing about the Cubs, and they’ve had some bad luck so far in that department. Maybe the bounces start evening out in this series?
The Cubs will get a look at reclaimed starter Juan Nicasio in this one, and I’ll be pretty interested to see how that goes. Is he legitimately a changed, and perfected starter now? Or has he not yet faced a lineup like the Cubs’?