This has a chance to be a moment. If the Cubs win two out of three in each of their series over the next week, they will hit the road with at least their current 9.5-game lead in the NL Central, and both the Pirates and the Cardinals will be running low on chances to make up that ground in head-to-head contests. Both Albert Almora and Willson Contreras will make their Wrigley Field debuts this weekend. Saturday night’s 7:15 PM game will be the latest scheduled Saturday game in the history of Wrigley Field. The forecast promises temperatures in the 80s and clear skies all weekend. This series should have, if not the full pitch of playoff fever, at least the sizzle of a set in later summer. The Cubs have never been in this position nearly so early in a season. In fact, they’ve led by 9.5 games or more for longer this year than they had in the previous 85 seasons, and it’s not even Father’s Day. If Chicago rises to the occasion, the atmosphere should be unbelievable.
Friday: Jake Arrieta v. Francisco Liriano
Liriano has stared over this precipice before, stared down into the abyss of irrelevance. He’s there again. He’s still striking batters out at an above-average rate, doing what he did so masterfully over the three previous seasons—aiming for the bottom of the zone and the area just below, using his sinker, slider and changeup to get batters to chase the wrong ones. He’s just not getting as many of those swings, which has led to a drastically increased walk rate. Oh, but he’s also not getting nearly as many swings and misses when he does leave a pitch in the strike zone. And further, he’s allowing much more hard contact, and many more batted balls to be pulled by opposing hitters. So really, it’s not just about the decreased swing rate on those frustrating, tantalizing pitches just below the knees. That’s merely been the biggest factor, one that has put Liriano in bad counts and forced him to adjust in a way he has found himself unable to execute. His changeup, in particular, isn’t working. Indeed, he’s almost given up on the pitch, which has helped opposing batters eliminate that offering when trying to combat Liriano’s approach.
It’ll be fun to watch Arrieta and Liriano pitch against one another. They haven’t done so since late 2013, before Arrieta had begun to really emerge into what he is now. Seeing them opposite one another should provide a fascinating, direct study of what makes them so similar—deceptive, cross-body deliveries, a powerful sinker-slider combo, and a knack for inducing weak contact—and of their key differentiators. Arrieta’s command is much, much better than Liriano’s, which not only helps him limit walks, but allows him to use that excellent stuff much better within the strike zone. He’s not as reliant on batters chasing bad pitches as Liriano is. Then, of course, there’s the curveball. Arrieta’s curve is the true gift from God, the thing that sets him apart from whatever pitcher you might choose who does Liriano’s thing a little bit better than Liriano does (think 2015 Dallas Keuchel). He’s dominated the Pirates over the last two years, and the likelihood that Starling Marte will be absent from the lineup Friday (along with Francisco Cervelli already being on the DL) only makes it easier to imagine him extending that streak of excellence.
Saturday: Jon Lester v. Jon Niese
With strong base stealers in Josh Harrison and Marte, the Pirates pose a particular threat to Jon Lester’s fragile-seeming brilliance. Their lineup is loaded with right-handed hitters, too, or at least it can be. Yet, Lester has allowed just six runs in 35 1/3 innings against Pittsburgh since joining the Cubs. Striking out over a third of the batters one faces helps there, of course. That’s the real answer to the question of how Lester has survived ever since the secret of his inability to throw to the bases became an open one. He’s just become a better pitcher, such a good one that that weakness can’t hurt him much. His working relationship with Ross has gone from valuable and symbiotic to transcendent. Lester enjoyed his best strikeout rate in five years last season, and is arcing even higher this year. He’s also walking fewer batters than ever before in his career. Knowing that runners on base have more potential to create havoc than they might under normal circumstances, Lester and Ross dedicate themselves more to the task of keeping them all off the bases than most batteries do. Three-ball counts are more tense. Tough at-bats are more arduously navigated. Then, when batters do become base runners, Ross takes the job of controlling the running game for his own. It’s remarkable, really. It’s beautiful. And despite all the seeming dangers lurking around every corner—what if people suddenly decide to just bunt on Lester all day?—it keeps working.
If only things were panning out so well for Niese. The Pirates tried their usual tricks with Niese, tried having him use his four-seam fastball more, adjusted his cutter, had him pound right-handers inside with it. Nothing has really worked. In fact, righties are hitting Niese harder than ever. He seems to be having trouble getting far enough in on them to stop them from making solid contact. He’s already allowed 14 home runs, after giving up just 20 (in 100 more innings) in 2015. If the Cubs load their lineup with righties and get ready to do some damage, this should be the easy win in the series.
Sunday: Kyle Hendricks v. Jameson Taillon
Hendricks drew the assignment the last time the Cubs were on Sunday Night Baseball, too, and that time, he had an even tougher opposing starter: Madison Bumgarner.
After catching the Pirates four times last season, Hendricks missed them in each of the teams’ previous series this spring. He was probably fine with that: none of his 2015 outings against Pittsburgh were good ones. He tried a changeup-heavy approach against them in one start last April, but for the most part, he’s leaned on his sinker. That’s how he operates most of the time, of course, but it’s not a great plan against the Pirates. Typically excellent at keeping the ball on the ground, Hendricks allowed Pittsburgh batters to elevate the ball against him much too often (just 29 grounders on 70 total batted balls), and they racked up 10 extra-base hits against him. If for no reason other than trying something new, look for Hendricks to go back to the changeup (especially the version he cuts away from right-handed batters) as a primary weapon, and mix in more four-seam fastballs, too—the latter of which he’s done over the last few starts anyway. If he can successfully confound Pirates’ hitters’ expectations, if he has his good changeup and can work inside with the fastball off of it, he might have better luck than he’s had in the past.
The margin for error is wider for Taillon, a rookie who nearly no-hit the Mets in his last start. Taillon has two inches and about 50 pounds on Hendricks, and uses that size to throw both a four-seamer and a sinker in the mid-90s. The sinker and his 12-to-6 curveball are visual marvels, but his little-used changeup will be the pitch that makes or breaks him as a top-of-the-rotation stud. So far, he’s not missing bats at the rate the Pirates hope he will going forward, but the change has been very good, and as Taillon finds his footing, strikeouts should come. That said, the Cubs are loaded with hitters who can handle velocity like Taillon’s, and with his fairly traditional power delivery, Chicago might be able to pick something up and get to him the second and third times through the order.
What to Watch For
Marte’s eye injury, which he suffered when a batted ball bounced up and hit him, might keep him out all weekend, or he might be back Friday. Whatever time he misses, the Cubs will be glad not to have to worry about him, though the Pirates remain a deep team, and Matt Joyce is a more dangerous replacement bat than most teams could muster in a similar situation.
Both of these bullpens come in on a bit of a downward trend arrow. Joe Maddon has shown very little trust in the relievers not named Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, and when he’s been forced to give key chances to the rest of his relief corps, they’ve given him very little chance to change his mind. The Pirates, meanwhile, are having the opposite of their usual luck with relief depth, and until Gerrit Cole gets healthy again or Tyler Glasnow gets called up, they’re going to have to keep Juan Nicasio in their rotation. If the Cubs get to the bullpen early in these games, they could make some hay, especially on such a summery weekend at Wrigley Field.
Contreras probably won’t start at all during this series, but look for him to catch at least a few innings. Almora is a good candidate to start Saturday night, and perhaps Friday, too. The prospect waves just keep coming for the Cubs.
Broadcast Info, Game Times, Etc.
Fridays are still Fridays in Wrigleyville, and so the teams will play in the sunshine, a good old-fashioned 1:20 start for the matchup of the teams’ aces. That game will be on ABC 7, and on MLB Network for those outside the Chicago area. (When good teams visit Wrigley on the weekends, that semi-national showcase is almost guaranteed.) Saturday night’s 7:15 start will be broadcast on FOX; that should be really fun. Sunday Night Baseball starts at 7:08 PM, so tune into ESPN and say you were one of the few who caught this classic in the making, what with everyone else tuned into Game 7 of the NBA Finals. (Don’t really do that. Watch Game 7. If you have the means to watch both, great, but don’t miss Game 7. It’s going to be amazing.)
Lead photo courtesy Noah K. Murray—USA Today Sports.