pirates parrotWelp. Okay.

The Cubs are headed to Pittsburgh to face the Pirates once again, and close out what has been a roller coaster first half of the season.

The Pirates have been streaking lately, winning 7 of their past 10 games, but the Cubs have had their number all year. In fact, the Cubs are 8-1 against the Pirates in three series this year and each has come after a frustrating series loss (Braves, Padres, Nationals). It sure would help to end this half on a high note.

We’re Going Streaking

But then again, is that really fair? The Chicago Cubs (52-33) may have won just once in their past eight games, but they’re still 19 games above .500 with an 8.0 game lead in the NL Central at the halfway point. Only the Giants have been better. And sure, they could have – and honestly, should have – won a lot more games over the past two-three weeks than they have, but they’ve been injured while playing a stretch of 24 straight games. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating, but it’s not easy.

After all, would you prefer to be rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates (44-42)? They’ve been hot as all heck lately, but remain in third place (8.5 games) behind the Cubs and Cardinals and are just two games over .500. The truth is, the wins and losses at the beginning of the season (for both teams) do matter. Don’t let the recent ugliness get you too down.

Worst case scenario, the Cubs enter the All-Star break with a 5.5 game lead over the Pirates (5.0 game lead over the Cardinals). Best case – and much of this is in the Cubs’ own hands (unusually so) – the Cubs enter the All-Star break with an 11.5 lead over the Pirates. Things could be worse.



 


Game Times and Broadcasts

  • Friday, July 8 at 6:05 CT on CSN, MLBN, 670 The Score
  • Saturday, July 9 at 6:15 CT on FOX, 670 The Score
  • Sunday, July 10 at 12:35 CT on WGN, 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.

Chicago Cubs

Starters:

  • Jake Arrieta (2.33 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 3.41 xFIP; 2.74 K/BB)
  • Jon Lester (2.67 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.50 xFIP; 4.20 K/BB)
  • John Lackey (3.50 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 3.89 xFIP; 3.26 K/BB)

Approximate Lineup:

  1. Ben Zobrist, 2B
  2. Kris Bryant, LF
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  4. Willson Contreras, C
  5. Javy Baez, 3B
  6. Jason Heyward, RF
  7. Addison Russell, SS
  8. Albert Almora Jr., CF
  9. Pitcher


Pittsburgh Pirates

Starters:

  • Francisco Liriano (5.343 ERA, 5.83 FIP, 4.79 xFIP; 1.55 K/BB)
  • Chad Kuhl (4.09 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 5.74 xFIP; 1.75 K/BB)
  • Jon Niese (4.87 ERA, 5.44 FIP, 4.34 xFIP; 2.00 K/BB)

Approximate Lineup:

  1. John Jaso, 1B (or Josh Bell, who is expected to be called up?)
  2. Gregory Polanco, RF
  3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  4. Jung-Ho Kang, 3B
  5. Starling Marte, LF
  6. Josh Harrison, 2B
  7. Jordy Mercer, SS
  8. Erik Kratz, C
  9. Pitcher

Hot or Not and Whom to Watch

Chicago Cubs – Pitching

The Cubs starters still have the best collective ERA (2.90) by a half a run over the the second place Mets (3.40), but it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, the first half has been a collection of highs and lows for the entire team, but nowhere is that more true than in the rotation. Take a look at the three Cubs going in this series alone, for that matter.

Jake Arrieta already has a no-hitter to go along with his excellent 2.33 ERA and 2.90 FIP, but somehow he’s been completely off for over a month (failing to complete the sixth inning in three straight starts). Despite a very strong strikeout rate (26.4%), he has just a 2.74 K/BB ratio (59th in MLB) because of an uncharacteristically high walk rate (9.6%).

Jon Lester had an unbelievably awesome stretch in June (that won NL Pitcher of the Month), but promptly followed that up with the shortest (and probably worst) outing of his entire career in New York (1.1 IP, 8 earned runs). Despite mostly looking good to the eye, Lester’s season FIP (3.69) is a good deal worst than the results he’s gotten (2.67 ERA).

And perhaps no one has had more of an up and down season than the Cubs third starter, John Lackey. If you scroll back through his game logs, you can pretty much lump his starts into two categories “great ones” and “stinkers.” Obviously that’s a bit of an over simplification, but consider through his 17 starts, he’s allowed 6 or more runs in four of them and 1 or 0 runs in six of them.

Even still, it’s the Cubs’ front three going against the Pirates so there are no excuses. It may be frustrating to hear over and over, but the Cubs should have the advantage in this series.



Chicago Cubs – Offense

Although we recently discussed it here, Addison Russell is the hot hitter right now. Since June 11 (101 plate appearances), Russell is slashing .262/.376/.560 with 7 homers, 4 doubles and a 13.9% walk rate. We’ve been oddly patient with Russell’s offensive development, mostly due to his unbelievably good defense, but we may not need to be anymore. It would be pretty exciting to see finish out the first half strong and carry it into the fall.

Although Willson Contreras started off blistering hot, he wasn’t able to … I’m just kidding. He’s been an absolute beast, even in his most recent games. Consider, in his last five starts alone (23 PAs), Contreras has slashed .381/.435/.810 with 2 HRs, one triple and a double. He’s already been worth just about 1 WAR … IN 20 GAMES. Dude is killing it.

In just about his last 100 plate appearances, Jason Heyward has hit for average (.286) and gotten on base (.375) at excellent rates. The problem is that he’s had just a .048 ISO during that stretch, resulting in a .333 SLG and a 98 wRC+. Up, Jason. Get the ball up!

Pittsburgh Pirates – Pitching

Pitching has been the Pirates kryptonite all season long, but that may change dramatically in the second half, when their rotation could feature all of Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow and James Taillon.

Lucky for the Cubs, none of those starters will pitch in this series. Instead, they drew the shell of Francisco Liriano, a 23-year-old Chad Kuhl, and a negative WAR Jon Niese. And if you think Liriano’s season numbers are bad, listen to this: since May 29, Liriano has a 6.88 ERA, allowing 27 earned runs on 42 hits and 25 walks in just 35.1 IP! Woof.

In fact, none of these guys have pitched well – by any stretch of the imagination – lately, so the Cubs should really be able to do some damage.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Offense

The Pirates offense, on the other hand, has been a good deal better. Collectively, they have the third best OBP (.336) in baseball, behind just the Red Sox and the Cubs.

However, Andrew McCutchen is having a really bad season – and not just by his standards. Not only is he slashing a paltry .238/.312/.401, he’s been worth negative value on defense, as well. Very unusual.

But never fear, Gregory Polanco is picking up the slack. In his 81 games this season, Polanco has slashed .291/.366/.507 with 12 home runs and an 11.2% walk rate. Already at 2.8 WAR, Polanco has been more valuable in this half season than he was for the entirety of 2015. At just 24 years old, he’s a pretty exciting player.


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