Series Preview: Cubs vs. Mets, June 30-July 3

Extremely soused Don Draper voice: “Step right up and greet the Mets…”

When asked about the upcoming four-game set against the Mets in Queens, Kyle Hendricks said, “We’ve got a little chip on our shoulders.”

Well, the Cubs might enter the series with a chip on their shoulder due to last year’s NLCS sweep to the Mets, but it’s New York who hobbles into the series with a chip in their elbow: it was recently revealed (slowly, awkwardly) that their emergent ace, Noah Syndergaard, had bone spurs there, alarming nearly every person who has seen Thor throw his 90+ mile-per-hour slider this season. This, in addition to the news that lefty Steven Matz also sported bone spurs in his elbow, significantly darkens New York’s forecast for the rest of the season. They already trail Washington by five games in the East, and are tied with a Marlins club that took three of four fairly convincingly against these selfsame Cubs.

I wrote yesterday of the Cubs’ successful attempts to shore up the upper minors and fringes of their 25-man roster in an effort to combat injuries, and the Mets face similar injuries in the form of a tender Curtis Granderson calf, a David Wright out sadly and indefinitely, a torn ligament in Juan Lagares’s thumb, and Lucas Duda’s stress fracture in his back. The Mets, however, sent their best hope for any sort of help to Triple-A Las Vegas, in the form of outfielder Michael Conforto. Conforto has threatened to file a grievance against the Mets for their actions, as he nurses a hurt wrist. Their desperation was such that they even stooped so low as to capitalize on José Reyes’s free agency, the result of Reyes’s domestic abuse case and fallout, leading to his release from the Rockies.

A team calmly in control of its own destiny squares off with one always in some state of disarray: it’s Cubs-Mets, and it’s going to be good.

Probable Pitchers

Thursday: John Lackey vs. Steven Matz

Due to the spurs in his elbow, the Mets pushed Matz’s start back one day. In his last outing, the lowly Braves roughed him up: six runs and nine hits, but no walks. His ERA has inflated by a run over his past four starts, now at a still-respectable 3.29, with an also-solid 3.97 DRA. This season, Matz’s strikout rate is identical to his in 2015; his groundball rate is up, and his HR/9 is down, and PECOTA likes him to perform better than he did last season. Of course, if his elbow continues to trouble him, those projections and rate stats could dip, or even plummet: a 25-year-old with elbow issues is never a good sign. The Cubs will likely run out a similar lineup to that which Joe Maddon used against the Reds’ lefty starters. Matz is the only lefty the Cubs face in the series, so Addison Russell might get another day of rest due to his struggles against southpaws thus far in his career.

John Lackey also scuffled in his last start. He walked three and allowed seven runs on seven hits in just 4 1/3 innings, shooting his ERA up to a 3.29 identical to Matz’s. He surrendered a 4-1 Cubs lead in Miami, and for the second straight start, he went back to throwing his sinker more often—perhaps a function of lost command and from pitching behind hitters. He also threw fewer changeups as a percentage of his pitches than in any other outing in 2016. Lackey is a zone-pounder. He needs to get ahead of hitters to succeed, and either the Marlins showed impeccable patience or Lackey simply couldn’t find the zone. Either way, he’s going to face a slightly tougher test in the Mets, even with their injuries.

Friday: Jason Hammel vs. Jacob deGrom

The man with the cocker spaniel hair has been his exceptional self so far in 2016 after some early scares about diminished velocity. He’s giving up slightly more hits and striking out slightly fewer hitters, but that could be a function of that velocity dip early on this year, as he’s struck out more in June while his team has failed to support him by scoring runs. DeGrom is the pitcher the Cubs should fear this series, and with the unpredictable Hammel on the mound, this game is their least favorable matchup.

Hammel, National League Man of Mystery, faces the Mets for the first time since he got lit up by them in Game Four of the NLCS. After a torrid April, in which he posted a 0.75 ERA, Hammel has reverted to his normal, average-ish self, but he carries with him a career-low (by far) .246 BABIP. More on Hammel, and the Cubs’ starting pitchers’ ability to get soft contact and succeed without exceptional fielding-independent stats, will be here at BP Wrigleyville in the coming weeks.

Saturday: Jake Arrieta vs. Bartolo Colón

Ah, the marquee matchup of the long weekend. We have a veritable #PitchersWhoRake duel at Citi Field on Saturday night, a legendary matchup of Beard and Belly. There’s not much to say about Colón’s pitching—he’s turning in serviceable work at the back end of the Met’s rotation at the age of 43, an impressive feat—so revel in watching him do improbable things on the baseball field.

The Cubs’ Cy Young-winner has actually been at his worst in two years, with his walk rate skyrocketing even as his strikeout and groundball rates remain the same as in the season for which he won hardware. Against the Reds in his last start, he hobbled through five innings of five-run baseball, with a matching five walks. Arrieta has succeeded without pinpoint command at many times throughout the past two seasons, since hitters can hardly touch his fastball or breaking stuff even when they know where it’s going, but walks are the righty’s death sentence. A second-string Mets lineup might be just what Arrieta needs to get back on track with a low-stress, six- or seven-inning start.

Sunday: Jon Lester vs. Noah Syndergaard

Syndergaard is still slated to make his start on Sunday, despite elbow concerns. The Mets’ melodramatic flair with which they handle their starting pitchers’, er, issues, has some at wit’s end, and their mighty righty butting heads with the front office and the New York Media™ over whether or not he’s hurt is hardly good for either the Mets or the pitcher. Regardless, Thor has been Cy-worthy. He’s struck out an incredible 30 percent of hitters faced, with four ten-K games already, on the strength of a dominant high-90s and low-100s fastball, with that hammer slider in the low-90s.

Lester, for his part, has been nearly as good, and without the injury concerns. His DRA is a fairly pedestrian 3.75, but Lester has proven to be a pitcher whose production doesn’t quite translate even to contextualized analytics like Deserved Run Average. He strikes out 25 percent and walks 5.5, as he has the past two seasons.For more on Lester’s 2016, check out Jared Wyllys’s exceptional piece from this week.

What to Watch for

Bartolo Colón.

The Cubs have a rare opportunity to build on a series sweep of the Reds against a weakened Mets club, in all facets of the game. After a week of frustration versus St. Louis and Miami, the Cubs’ playoff rivals offer a dinner and a show, with their off-field circus. The saga of the Wilpons, the New York press, and the Mets’ superstar players is endless, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you’d rather watch baseball, well, there’s a lot going on. I haven’t yet mentioned Yoenis Céspedes, who is hitting .290/.360/.560 with 18 home runs, a continuation of his impressive half season last season for the Amazin’s. The Cubs will see a lot of the back end of the Mets’ 25-man roster, with their bevy of injuries, including journeyman slugger Matt Reynolds, former White Sox Alejandro de Aza, and Cubs Killer of Playoffs Past James Loney. Travis d’Arnaud returned last week from a long disabled list stint, resuming everyday catching duties from the very bad Kevin Plawecki. Like the Cubs, they’re in transition.

On the Chicago side, keep watching Willson Contreras. He’s a delight. Albert Almora, Jr., hit his first career home run in Cincinnati, and Javier Baez added a grand slam to his ridiculous defensive road trip. Those three contributing is all gravy, since Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are both playing at MVP-levels: Bryant’s warming bat and Rizzo’s .395/.485/.753 in June are carrying the team’s offense.

Broadcast Info

Thursday night’s game begins at 6:10 CDT on Comcast SportsNet, and Friday’s is the same time on WGN. The Saturday game is FOX’s feature, at 6:15 CDT. Sunday is the only matinee of the series, a 12:10 CDT start on Comcast. All games, as always, will be broadcast on 670 WSCR.

Lead photo courtesy Geoff Baker—USA Today Sports.

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