Series Preview: Mets at Cubs, July 18-20

If things go according to plan, this series could be the last time a diminished Cubs team takes the field. Dexter Fowler could be back by the end of this week. From the sound of it, Jorge Soler might not be far behind him. That convalescence comes as the clock starts ticking a bit more loudly; the trade deadline is just two weeks away. Just .500 since Mother’s Day, the Cubs seem to have been running uphill since roughly mid-May. Yet, they enter this set with an eight-game lead in the NL Central, the same as the one they had then.

In so many ways, then, the end of this series will bring a sigh of relief. The Cubs will have passed through a brutal two-month slog, survived a long stretch without some key contributors, and be right on the cusp of getting some help (whatever shape that might take). They also won’t have to worry about the Mets anymore, at least for a while.

Probable Starters

Monday: Steven Matz v. Jon Lester

Matz pitched against the Cubs on June 30, and was good enough to give the Mets a chance to win (they did). The Cubs hit him pretty hard, though. Matz had to trade seven hits (four for extra bases) and three walks for 16 outs, but the Cubs couldn’t ever knock him out, and he held them to three runs.

With mid-90s heat and a four-pitch arsenal, Matz is the real deal. The slider he’s added this season has rounded out his repertoire nicely. His changeup is his swing-and-miss, put-away pitch, though, which is why he has a very small career platoon split. Righties hit him for power (Kris Bryant and Javier Baez took him deep in New York), but he also strikes them out at a remarkable rate, for a lefty starter, and he’s always in the zone.

Lester missed David Ross dearly in his final start before the break, which isn’t to say that he’d recently been pitching all that well even with him. Ross surely benefited from some time off, both to treat and recover from concussion symptoms, and to rest whatever else ails a player pushing 40 in the middle of his final season. Lester didn’t take the full All-Star break, pitching two thirds of an inning last Tuesday night, but the shuffled rotation coming out of the break gave him a few extra days to catch up.

There have been all kinds of rumors about the elbows of each of these men. At this point, the facts are pretty clear: Matz has a bone spur. Lester has bone chips. For now, though, both are pitching as though nothing is wrong. Lester is throwing hard, yet, and his cutter is consistently hitting 90 miles per hour this season—something it hadn’t done in years. The weather will be modestly hitter-friendly on Monday night, but this game figures to be well-pitched.

Tuesday: Noah Syndergaard v. Jake Arrieta

This is where things get interesting. Syndergaard dominated the Cubs not even three weeks ago, in New York. He’s the Mets’ surest firewall against a team that is a likely opponent, should they reach October. Syndergaard’s overwhelming stuff is rare, but his ability to consistently throw both his curve and his slider for strikes sets him apart. The Cubs are a team full of hitters (and hitting coaches, for that matter) who particularly profit from seeing a pitcher a few times, adjusting to them, learning when to expect what, but Syndergaard might be good enough to stay ahead of the curve a while.

Arrieta, of course, will be the center of attention. If he regains his form over the second half, the Cubs are uncatchable, and maybe unstoppable. Arrieta says the 10 days between appearances will prove to have done him good, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that. Joe Maddon made a habit of riding the starting five harder than he needed to in the first half, and Arrieta paid perhaps the highest price. In fact, going back to when he found his highest gear, sometime last June, Arrieta’s workload rose to nearly alarming levels, and never really came back down. That odometer can’t be wound back, but maybe the time off really did allow the engine to cool.

There are mechanical, mental, and simple sequential problems with Arrieta right now. He’s often seemed to have one or two of those things shored up over his last several starts, and occasionally appeared to be wholly fixed. Until he puts together an entire start where all the columns align, though, there will be legitimate cause for concern. If Tuesday night is that start, the Cubs will really have cleared a hurdle.

Wednesday: Bartolo Colon v. Kyle Hendricks

There’s some threat of storms on Wednesday afternoon, as a heat wave begins to crash over Chicago and the weather gets volatile. Summer is like that. The starting pitchers on Wednesday, though, are much more dependable, more consistent, and more relaxing—is still somewhat hot and cold. Colon has a lot of autumn in him—even, at long last, a hint of winter. Hendricks, then, is spring, Colon’s reflection in skill set and approach but his true opposite in terms of career arc.

Improbably, Colon keeps finding ways to throw more sinkers (and so, more strikes) without paying a rising price in terms of hard contact. His opponents’ OPS drops from .746 to .647 when someone reaches base. He doesn’t throw hard, but the ability to pound the zone relentlessly and invite contact, without permitting hard contact, is invaluable.

Speaking of which, Hendricks is just Colon, with a bit softer and less effective a four-seam fastball, and a much, much better changeup. Increasingly, arguments against Hendricks’s long-term viability as a mid-rotation or better starter feel irrelevant. His sinker and change are unconventional and effective, and whatever scouting grades they might normally receive, Hendricks’s command bumps them up. It will be the only game of the series not played in prime time on national TV, but the pitching matchup will be no less interesting than the others.

What to Watch For

The single thing that changed most from the last few weeks before the break to the weekend series the Cubs just won over the Rangers was the team defense. Since early June, the dazzling plays and tremendous range that marked the early part of the season for the Cubs had been waning, and sometimes missing altogether. More batted balls had been turning into hits. That turned around over the weekend, in a big way. Presumably, it will only continue to rebound once Fowler returns, even though Fowler is a lesser defensive center fielder than Albert Almora, Jr. During this series, the thing most worth watching is that defense. If the Cubs’ pitchers execute well, there will be a lot of ground balls, and Maddon consistently aligns his defense behind these particular starters to maximize defense.

Game Times, Broadcast Information, Etc.

Each of the first two games of the series will start at 6:05 CT, to accommodate ESPN’s national coverage. For those in the Chicago area, though, the ESPN telecasts won’t be available. Those viewers can watch Monday night on WPWR, and Tuesday night on CSN Chicago. Wednesday’s 1:20 start will be on ABC 7.

Lead photo courtesy Eric Hartline—USA Today Sports.

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