nationals president raceAlthough the Cubs had an easier/lighter schedule early in the season, they are currently in the middle of a pretty tough stretch.

They just caught the Pirates for three in a row, but now they’ll face the Nationals for four straight, beginning tonight at Wrigley.

Later this month, they’ll meet up for three more against the Pirates, stop in the Bay area for three against the San Francisco Giants, head down to St. Louis for three more against the Cardinals, and finish the month out in Los Angeles with a four-game set against the Dodgers.

A tough stretch, indeed.

In addition to the tough schedule, they’re still playing without Miguel Montero, Kyle Schwarber, Matt Szczur and (maybe) Jason Heyward. Luckily, some other players like Javier Baez, David Ross and Tommy La Stella have really stepped up and made this transitional period smooth.

We’re Going Streaking

The Cubs (20-6) are the best team in baseball after sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC earlier this week. They are now six games up on those very Pirates in the NL Central and it’s barely May! (And the Pirates are a good team!) They’re 8-2 in their last ten games, including three wins in a row.



But this weekend, they’ll take on the Washington Nationals (19-6) – A.K.A. the second best team in baseball. The Nationals just won a series against the defending World Series Champion Royals, immediately following a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. They are a hot team with one of the best players in baseball in right field.

It’s gut check time.

Game Times and Broadcasts

  • Thursday, May 5 at 7:05 CT on CSN, 670 The Score
  • Friday, May 6 at 1:20 CT on CSN, MLBN, 670 The Score
  • Saturday, May 7 at 3:05 CT on CSN, FS1, 670 The Score
  • Sunday, May 8 at 1:20 on WGN, 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.

Cubs

Starters:

  • Kyle Hendricks (3.52 ERA, 2.50 FIP; 4.75 K/BB)
  • John Lackey (4.32 ERA, 3.31 FIP; 3.22 K/BB)
  • Jason Hammel (1.24 ERA, 3.03 FIP; 2.50 K/BB)
  • Jake Arrieta (0.84 ERA, 2.79 FIP; 3.08 K/BB)

Approximate Lineup:

  1. Dexter Fowler, CF
  2. Jason Heyward, RF
  3. Kris Bryant, 3B
  4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  5. Ben Zobrist, 2B
  6. Jorge Soler, LF (Javy Baez and Tommy La Stella also get in by way of this slot)
  7. Addison Russell, SS
  8. David Ross/Tim Federowicz, C
  9. Pitcher


Washington Nationals

Starters:

  • Joe Ross (0.79 ERA, 2.89 FIP; 2.00 K/BB)
  • Max Scherzer (3.55 ERA, 3.75 FIP; 3.25 K/BB)
  • Gio Gonzalez (1.15 ERA, 2.78 FIP; 2.89 K/BB)
  • Tanner Roark (2.35 ERA, 2.88 FIP; 2.27 K/BB)

Approximate Lineup:

  1. Michael Taylor, CF
  2. Anthony Rendon, 3B
  3. Bryce Harper, RF
  4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
  5. Daniel Murphy, 2B
  6. Jason Werth, LF
  7. Danny Espinosa, SS
  8. Wilson Ramos, C
  9. Pitcher

Hot or Not and Whom to Watch

Chicago Cubs – Pitching

Over his last three starts, Kyle Hendricks’ underlying performance (2.70 FIP, 59.2% ground ball rate, 4.5% walk rate) has been a lot better than the resulting 3.86 ERA. A large part of that is due to an unusually low strand rate (56.8%) and an average strikeout rate (20.9%). But for the season, Hendricks has looked mostly and consistently great. His 2.50 FIP for the season leads the Cubs (including Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, who’ve had brilliant starts), as does his xFIP of 2.88.

John Lackey, on the other hand, has been far less consistent. He’s gone out to the mound five times this year, resulting in three great outings of giving up two or fewer earned runs (6.2 IP, 7.0 IP, 8.0 IP) and two poor outings of giving up six or more earned runs (5.2 IP and 6.0 IP). He has been, however, good at continuing to deliver quality innings, even after an explosion of runs has already occurred. There is real value in that.

Chicago Cubs – Offense

Addison Russell has had an odd last five games, hitting just .222/.391/.222 in 23 plate appearances. He’s been able to keep that OBP so high thanks to an incredible 17.4% walk rate. He’s not striking out too often – 21.7% over that stretch – and his BABIP (.308) is just fine, so I’d expect him to turn things around quite quickly.

In the meantime, #Bryzzo has been dominating. Over the past five games, Anthony Rizzo has slashed .429/.500/.810 with identical 8.3% strikeout/walk rates. He’s hit five doubles and a home run in his last 24 plate appearances. In the meantime, Kris Bryant has slashed .412/.565/.471 with a killer 17.4% walk rate and has avoided striking out (21.7%). Enough hasn’t been said about Bryant cutting down on his K’s, but he’s really done a phenomenal job. For the season, he’s at just 20.2% over 114 plate appearances.



Washington Nationals – Pitching

As good as the Cubs’ starting pitching has been this season – and it has been really good – the Washington Nationals staff has actually been quite a bit better. Indeed, as a whole, the Nats’ pitching corps has been worth a total of 6.0 fWAR already – the Cubs are just behind them (5.3) in the standings, though. And leading that charge is Stephen Strasburg. He has given up just 33 hits in his 42 innings pitched, while accumulating 47 strikeouts to just 9 walks. Luckily, the Cubs will miss him in this series!

They won’t, however, miss Max Scherzer, but maybe that’s okay. To start the season (six games), Scherzer has given up 33 hits and 12 walks in just 38 innings pitched. That’s led him into 15 earned runs, despite a perfectly normal, if not low BABIP (.286) and a reasonable strand rate (79.5%). He has been quite bitten by the long ball (12.8% HR/FB ration) so maybe the Cubs can get to him that way. I’ll remind you that he’s still Max Scherzer, though, and he did have 39 strikeouts over those 38 IP.

Washington Nationals – Offense

Without looking, could you guess which Nationals position player has the most WAR this season? If I didn’t set you up so suspiciously, you would have definitely guessed Bryce Harper, but nope, not him. It’s Daniel Murphy (he who broke the hearts of all Cubs fans in October 2015), who has 1.8 WAR on the season (or 0.5 more than Harper). He’s slashing .398/.449/.663 on the year with a mere 11.2% strikeout rate. Let’s see if the Cubs’ pitchers can help him regress just a bit.

Perhaps surprisingly, Harper has actually been quite cold lately. In his last eight games (34 PAs), Harper has just four hits, and, get this, a 41.2% strikeout rate. Indeed, over that stretch he’s slashed just .133/.235/.233 with a 29 wRC+. Hopefully, that holds up over the long weekend.

In the meantime, Joe Maddon digs Harper’s style.

Previous Series Review (Cubs v. Pirates):


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