Series Preview: Cubs at Pirates, July 8-10

If there were a euphemism or tired cliché that has described the Cubs’ season so far, it’s Isaac Newton’s “what goes up must come down.” He was talking about gravity, but had he said it about the 2016 Cubs, the 17th century British mathematician and astronomer would be right about the way the season has gone so far. The Cubs jumped out to a 25-6 record, on pace for a historical season the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 2001 Seattle Mariners. Lately? Watching the Cubs on the field has been like watching someone dropping an apple from the Willis Sears Tower.

Across the way, on the other side of the field at PNC Park, there’s the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’ve been strikingly mediocre this year, especially against the Cubs. Chicago leads the season series 8-1, with the one Pirates victory being a 2-1 score that prompted Josh Harrison to sing “No Cubs, No” and Gerrit Cole to say the (then) 27-9 Cubs weren’t the best team in baseball.

The Pirates, knowing that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, have risen as the Cubs have fallen the last few weeks. Following a sweep at the hands of the Cubs at Wrigley Field on June 19, Pittsburgh was 15 games back in the standings and staring at a 33-36 record. But while the Cubs have gone 5-12 in the 17 games since that day, the Pirates are 11-5, have won six in a row, and gained 6.5 games in the standings. But what goes up must come down, right?

Probable Pitchers

Friday: Jake Arrieta vs. Francisco Liriano

The series starts with a bang, as Jake Arrieta takes the mound for the final time prior to the All-Star game. Despite having given up four runs in 5 1/3 innings against the New York Mets his last time out, there’s reason to be optimistic about Arrieta moving forward. The problem for him has been command on his sinker/cutter/slutter pitch, which can be devastating but also have a mind of its own. Arrieta took a little off the velocity on the pitch and was able to control it better, raising the strike percentage on the pitch to 69.2—which is pretty nice in comparison to the previous four starts, where it was around 60 percent as a whole.

On the Pirates side, there’s Francisco Liriano—who certainly knows a lot about not throwing strikes and walking too many batters. Liriano’s stuff can be nasty but he also doesn’t throw pitches in the zone, and this season batters seemingly have decided to swing less. Liriano has walked 5.6 batters per nine innings and has a bloated 1.643 WHIP to go along with his 5.34 ERA.

Saturday: Jon Lester vs. Chad Kuhl

Lester had his worst start of the season last time out, giving up eight earned runs in just 1 1/3 innings and seeing his ERA rise from 2.03 to 2.67. But prior to that, which the Cubs will hope is simply a speedbump, Lester had been really pitching like an ace. He was the NL Player of the Month for June with a 1.41 ERA in six starts. Chad Kuhl will oppose Lester, going out to the mound for just the third time in his career as a Major League Baseball player. He’s allowed five earned runs in 11 career innings, walking four and striking out seven.

Sunday: John Lackey vs. Jonathan Niese

In the finale before the All-Star break, the Cubs will send Jon Lackey to the mound against Pirates left-hander Jonathan Niese. The gruff Lackey said, quite succinctly, that the latest slump for the Cubs is un-concerning because the big boy games don’t start until October. He’s right, at least about these games essentially being a warm-up for the playoffs, should the Cubs qualify—and BP’s post-season odds say they will. Lackey has had trouble with his control his last three starts, walking 10 in 16.2 innings with a 7.56 ERA.

What to Watch for


The major league schedule is long and grueling, and players are at peak exhaustion right before the All-Star break. The Pirates seem to have some Cubs-related angst this season, and with how well they’re playing and the 6.5 games they’ve shaved off the Cubs’ division lead, there’s no doubt to be some fireworks at some point—whether it be a close game with some inside pitches or a hit batter, or a blowout game that elicits some irritating celebrations from the winning team.

After all, this is the scene of the crime that ended the Pirates’ season in 2015, with Jake Arrieta twirling a gem in the NL Wild Card game. Expect someone to stare down a batter rounding the bases or yell at an opposing pitcher at some point in the next three days.

Broadcast Info

Friday’s game will begin at 6:05pm CST and will be broadcast on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and MLBNetwork for those outside of the Chicago and Pittsburgh viewing markets. Saturday’s game is a 6:15pm CST affair and will air nationally on FOX, while the finale of the first half of the season on Sunday is a 12:35pm CST start and airs on WGN-Chicago.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

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