While the Atlanta Braves as an organization have embraced the tank, their players on the field are still trying not to suck.
But they’re trying to the tune of a league-worst .591 OPS with four collective home runs. Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Boston Red Sox may have snapped a string of eight straight losses, but eight in a row wasn’t even the longest losing streak this skeleton crew had endured less than a month into this season.
And now the 5-17 Braves now find themselves up against the 16-5 Cubs for three games at Wrigley this weekend.
Jon Lester has enjoyed a very steady April (1.98 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 7.6 K/9), and he’ll look to finish the month strong in Friday’s series opener opposite Atlanta’s Aaron Blair. Lester’s last outing was an easy 8-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds in which he allowed just one run over seven innings. Blair’s last start, on the other hand, was actually his major league debut. Blair, a highly-regarded Sign of Good Things to Come in Atlanta, was ranked 43rd on Baseball Prospectus’ 2016 top prospect list, and he lasted 5 1/3 innings against the Mets last Sunday, giving up three runs. Not bad, considering the Mets had taken a combined 14 runs off the Braves in the series’ previous two games.
Saturday’s game pits Julio Teheran against John Lackey, a matchup which carries a lot of question marks. Teheran, who brings a 4.60 ERA into this series, is coming off his best start of the season last Monday: seven innings, one run, and six hits against the Boston Red Sox (because this is the 2016 Braves, the game indeed ended in a 1-0 Boston victory). Lackey has been at times brilliant, at times a mess this year, and he’ll look to rebound from surrendering six runs to the Reds in his last start. Luckily, the odds are good the Cubs’ batters will have Lackey’s back either way.
Jason Hammel takes the mound in Sunday’s finale, and what a start to the season he’s had, boasting more RBIs (three) to his name than earned runs allowed (two) and a 0.75 ERA. Hammel sought outside advice on pitching, training, and diet during the offseason in an attempt to avoid a repeat of 2015’s second half woes, and if he continues to generate plenty of ground ball outs with his slider this year, things should be looking up. Matt Wisler, who starts Sunday for the Braves, has been on his own quest for consistency since getting called up to the majors last June. While he’s shown flashes of good form in 2016, he’s fallen victim to some costly single innings, and he has a 4.26 ERA to show for it.
What to Watch For
The Cubs are currently without Miguel Montero, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Thursday, retroactive to April 25. Despite becoming the number one guy in Montero’s absence, David Ross would like to remind everyone that, at 39 years old, he is not an everyday catcher:
Ross re Montero injury: “I know I can't catch every day. I’ll tell you that. I’m not an everyday catcher. Nope. Not that guy.”
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) April 28, 2016
Rather than shifting the timeline on Willson Contreras’ development, the Cubs recalled Tim Federowicz from Triple-A Iowa, and he’ll get the start in Saturday’s game. Between 2011 and 2014, Federowicz appeared in 89 games as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, batting .194 with a .547 OPS. It’s usually not the case that removing Ross from a lineup results in an offensive dropoff, but Federowicz is here to eat innings in the squat, and he’ll do just fine in that role.
It’s also up in the air whether or not Kris Bryant will be available for the weekend games, as he is being treated for a mild ankle sprain sustained in Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs have yet to disclose the results of a precautionary MRI, but should Bryant need a little rest, a series against the Braves is the perfect time to sit him out.
Javier Baez, who was actually slated as the emergency catcher in case Federowicz couldn’t arrive in time, would get some playing time in this scenario, as undoubtedly will Tommy La Stella. As BP Wrigleyville’s Ryan Davis wrote, La Stella’s been on something of a tear, batting .375/.482/.667 this year and shifting Bryant out to left field more often than expected. La Stella carries the added benefit of being a lefty batter, and each of the Braves’ starters this series is right-handed.
It’s worth mentioning that the Braves’ schedule so far has not been an easy one, which might account for some of their more dire stats. Still, in theory, this series should mostly be a question of just how much damage the Cubs can do against an anemic side. If Chicago manages more of the landslide victories that we’ve seen from them so far, the scapegoat firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez may also be something to watch for.
All three games have a start time of 1:20 pm CST. Friday’s game will be shown on CSN, Saturday’s on ABC 7, and Sunday’s on WGN. All radio broadcasts will be on 670 The Score.
Lead photo courtesy Dale Zanine—USA Today Sports