Series Preview: Cubs at Phillies, June 6-8

There is no such thing as a soft schedule over the course of an MLB season. The Cubs had a pretty soft April, but a tough stretch in May, and after a brief respite, they’ll soon see the difficulty setting ratchet up again. Between now and the All-Star break, the Cubs will play 33 games in 35 days, and 23 of those games will be on the road. It goes like this: a nine-game road trip starts in Philadelphia Monday, then (after a travel day) three in Atlanta and three more in Washington. Another day off will bring the Cubs home, but they’ll face the Pirates and Cardinals in consecutive series there, and then it’s back to the road for four in Miami, three in Cincinnati, and four in New York. Without a day off, the team will then come home, face the Reds three times, make up an April washout with the Braves on July 8, and finish off their first-half schedule with a weekend in Pittsburgh.

Start with the Washington series, and between the level of competition and the circumstances (24 straight games without a break, travel, the gathering heat of late June and early July), the club will be thrilled if they play 14-13 baseball. That’s why these first six games are crucial. The Phillies visited Wrigley Field at the start of the 8-2 home stand the Cubs just finished, and it was an easy sweep for the home team. If the Cubs want to head into the All-Star break (which, for better and for worse, won’t be much of a break for several of them) with the same firm grasp on the NL Central lead that they enjoy right now, they had better start by taking at least two of three from Philadelphia.

Probable Pitchers

Monday: Jon Lester v. Adam Morgan

All three pitching matchups in this series are identical to the ones we saw in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend. Lester takes the mound for the Cubs, facing a Phillies lineup against whom the key is not to make unforced errors. In the entire lineup, the only batter who consistently works walks and puts together good plate appearances is Odubel Herrera, whom Lester befuddled last time, and whose left-handedness does him no favors in this matchup. Tommy Joseph can hit some, but will expand his strike zone too readily for David Ross and Lester not to take advantage of him. Cameron Rupp is strong and looking to turn on anything inside, so the best bet is to work him away, test his (good, but not exceptional) opposite-field power, and only go inside when one is very confident of getting far enough in to jam him badly. I’ve seen good pitchers set up Rupp by pounding the outer edge early in games, then going way in on him, but in general, he adjusts well as games progress, and will take tough pitches the third time through at which he would fruitlessly flail earlier. Lester’s typical game plan, which involves working the fringes of the strike zone and pitching more to his strengths than to opponents’ weaknesses, will work just fine against this lineup.

On the other side, there’s Morgan, whom the Cubs lit up on May 27. Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Ross all had long home runs that day, and in Morgan’s lone start since, Wilson Ramos might have topped all three with a mammoth shot to the opposite field—after which Danny Espinosa, too, went very deep. When Morgan gets sideways, here’s how it looks: his arm angle creeps up, his fastball flattens out, his breaking stuff can’t get down and out of the zone, and the game takes on a batting practice feel. When he faced the Cubs last, that was happening just about all game. Morgan throws from the first-base side of the rubber, which can create tough angles for lefties, but when he’s throwing from a high three-quarters slot, that’s somewhat compromised, and right-handed hitters have an especially long look at the ball.

Morgan did consistently use a lower slot and locate better early in his start against the Nationals Wednesday, though, which is why he had allowed only two runs through five innings before succumbing to a barrage in the sixth. When he’s doing that, the plan should be for right-handers to use the opposite field, as Washington did with some success (and as Dexter Fowler did on his fourth-inning triple the last time he saw Morgan, for instance). His track record shows that he’ll either lose his feel for that slot or tire and lose deception as the game wears on, at which point the tape measure can come out. Morgan throws four pitches, but he’s not a four-pitch pitcher. It’s fastball-slider to lefties and fastball-changeup to righties, with just enough of his curve to (not, really) keep each type of batter honest. If the righties wait for mistakes or look for a pitch to drive smoothly to right field, the Cubs should handle Morgan perfectly well again.

Tuesday: Kyle Hendricks v. Jerad Eickhoff

Hendricks dominated the Phillies last time he saw them, and there’s no good reason he can’t do so again Tuesday. It will be a similarly hitter-friendly day, so it’s vital that Hendricks stay in the mechanical groove that has allowed him to induce so many ground balls (and so much weak contact in general) over his last three starts. If he can do so, though, he’ll find the opposing hitters just as susceptible to his manipulation (they chased a lot of changeups and stood frozen by a lot of darting sinkers in the zone) as they were last time.

Eickhoff is right-handed, but otherwise somewhat similar to Morgan. He, too, needs to avoid having the arm slot creep up, though in his case, it’s more about maintaining control of his sinker (he also throws a four-seamer, but there’s nothing terribly useful about that one no matter what his arm angle) than about having the stuff play up. Eickhoff has a slider that can devastate right-handed hitters when he has them set up for it, but too often, his sinker will wander onto a barrel or his curve will hang in the middle of the plate early in counts, and then the slider never comes into play. He did fan seven Cubs on May 28 at Wrigley, settling down after allowing a leadoff home run to Dexter Fowler, and he only walked one. The Cubs got four runs against him, but not by hitting the ball especially hard or racking up a ton of good opportunities. A big zone aided both pitchers that day.

Wednesday: John Lackey v. Vince Velasquez

Both pitchers found a much tighter strike zone on May 29, when Lackey and Velasquez squared off, and the contest came down to the talent of the two offenses. The Cubs were better able to take advantage when Velasquez got squeezed than the Phillies were when it happened to Lackey. The veteran Lackey walked four in seven innings of work, but also fanned seven, and adapted to the smaller zone with a barrage of sliders designed to induce chases from the Phillies—37 sliders, to be exact, a higher raw number than he’d thrown in a single game in over a year, comprising a higher percentage of his total pitches than in any game since late 2013. He got 14 whiffs on 22 swings at the pitch. All four walks came on 3-2 counts, with Lackey unwilling to give in and use the middle of the plate.

Velasquez has terrific pure stuff, which might be why he was more willing to challenge the Cubs within the smaller zone. That was the wrong choice. Chicago collected nine hits off Velasquez, including two home runs, and all but one of those hits came on pitches right over the heart of the plate. It was partially a matter of flawed command, but there was definitely a flawed methodology involved, too.

Presumably, there will be a wider zone Wednesday, with both teams on their way out of town and a significant threat of rain. We’ll see which pitcher adapts better to the conditions, whatever they turn out to be.

What to Watch For

Only one poor, unfortunate Cub (Jason Heyward) had to see Hector Neris during the series at Wrigley, and like roughly a third of Neris’s opposing batters this season, he struck out. Neris, Jeanmar Gomez and David Hernandez form a studly triumvirate in the Philadelphia bullpen, so getting the lead early (as the Cubs did all three days in Chicago) will be a key.

The other thing the Phillies do very well is play defense. Freddy Galvis keys a very good defensive infield, and David Lough is an elite defensive corner outfielder—though so inept at bat that he sometimes struggles to stay in the lineup anyway. Odubel Herrera will occasionally go all-out in an effort to make a catch, then miss it and take his time recovering the ball, so on any deep fly ball to center or to the alleys, the Cubs need to run hard out of the box. There might be an extra 90 feet available as a reward for good hustle.

On the Cubs’ side, look for Kris Bryant to get a breather on either Tuesday or Wednesday. Both days feature Phillies starters who can be tough on right-handed hitters, and Bryant hasn’t had a game off since the end of April. Joe Maddon has been proactive about getting rest for some other members of the regular lineup, but Bryant hasn’t yet enjoyed the same benefit, and it would be better to get him some time against weak competition this week than to wait and have him need a day (or fight mounting fatigue) as the schedule gets tougher. Both Anthony Rizzo and Heyward had the day off Sunday, so although they both sat when the Cubs saw Morgan on May 27, they could well be in the lineup Monday night. Jorge Soler was hit in the foot Sunday afternoon, so he could sit, with Bryant sliding to left field, Rizzo resuming his post at first, and Javier Baez starting again at third.

Baez doubled Saturday and homered Sunday, but he continues to put together some bad at-bats, marked by swings coming too early and too often, generating a lot of weak contact. He’s seen two or fewer pitches in 42 of his 113 plate appearances this season, and is hitting .286/.286/.452 in those plate appearances. In the other 71 trips to the plate, he’s batting .231/.254/.385, underscoring just how much work his approach still requires. Even if he can sustain that exact performance on first- and second-pitch batted balls, he shouldn’t try to, because the swings he’s taking to get there are leaving him in way too many bad spots. If he wants to grow into as valuable a weapon at the plate as he is in the field and on the bases (the latter part, of course, being pretty dependent on his hitting coming around, anyway), he needs to add texture and refinement to his approach.

Broadcast Info and More

Monday night’s game will be on ESPN2 for viewers outside the Chicago area, and Wednesday afternoon’s will be on MLB Network for those folks, too. Inside the market, you can find Monday’s game on CSN Chicago, Tuesday’s on WGN, and Wednesday’s back on CSN. Monday and Tuesday night are both 6:05 CT starts, and Wednesday’s game (if it isn’t delayed by the currently forecasted afternoon thunderstorms) will start at 12:05 CT.

Lead photo courtesy Bill Streicher—USA Today Sports.

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