Fresh from series wins against the Rangers and Mets, and after an off-day charity boxing event Wednesday night, the Cubs are well positioned to go into Milwaukee this weekend and continue the kind of baseball they have played since the All Star break. They have an incredibly favorable five game road trip that starts tonight, with three games in Milwaukee before heading back to Chicago for two games at U.S. Cellular Field against the White Sox.
The Cubs and Brewers have not played each other since the third week of May, a series that did not turn out favorably for Chicago, who pulled just one win in the three game set, a dramatic 13 inning 2-1 win in the middle game of the series. Since then, the Cubs went through what will hopefully be their roughest stretch of games all season, and the Brewers have moved along in roughly the same direction, sitting firmly below .500.
Friday: Jason Hammel vs. Jimmy Nelson
One day we’ll gather our children around a campfire and frighten them with the stories of Jason Hammel’s second half drop off in 2015, but hopefully we’ll also have the chance to regale them with his redemption in the second half of 2016. Almost as soon as the calendar flips to July, we instinctively watch Hammel’s starts with one eye squeezed shut. His most recent start holds promise for the second half of this season, as he threw a quality start against the Rangers, going six innings and allowing just one run while striking out seven. It was encouraging, and for a guy who has expressed that he is working on preventing the July-August-September tailspin this year, there’s possibly reason to believe him just a little bit. And heck, maybe the potato chips will help. If that doesn’t do it, Ryan Davis had some ideas here yesterday.
Nelson, who pitched rather successfully when last he faced the Cubs in the series finale on May 18th, is presumably hoping to continue rebounding from a rough stretch of starts in which he posted a 5.14 ERA. Most recently, Nelson pitched a strong seven scoreless innings against Cincinnati on July 16th. In fact, the month of June aside, he’s generally been a very reliable starter for the Brewers, and the Cubs, in their careers to date, have not had much success against him. This year, Nelson has relied most heavily on his 94-mph sinker with an equally fast four seam fastball thrown in about 20 percent of the time to mix it up. Otherwise, he might sprinkle in a slider and curve pretty equally, but thus far neither pitch has had heavy usage in 2016.
Saturday: John Lackey vs. Zach Davies
Lackey has been a much better pitcher at home than on the road this season (2.84 ERA at Wrigley, 4.70 on the road), so hopefully he briefly closes his eyes before each pitch and lets the sound of the Chicago-heavy crowd make him believe that he’s at the Friendly Confines. In general, Lackey has done the job hoped for when he signed with the Cubs, but of late he had gone through a challenging stretch, from his June 14th start against the Nationals up until the break. Like Hammel, his most recent start was encouraging, an eight-inning day against the Rangers with eight strikeouts and just two walks. He was ultimately tagged with the loss, but that’s because Cole Hamels was on the other side of the box score.
Davies is continuing to post similar (good) numbers as those he put up in his rookie campaign in 2015. That said, Saturday might not bode well for the young pitcher. He has allowed a .264 TAv to opposing hitters, and though he possesses an impressive array of pitches, he’s not going to blow anyone away with them. The Cubs will see a sinker again, his most used pitch, but it comes in quite a bit slower than Nelson’s. His change gets the highest whiff rate, and he goes to it about 20 percent of the time, though much more heavily to left handed hitters than righties. Cubs batters have seen very, very little of Davies, so tomorrow’s game could prove interesting in that respect. In fact, only Javy Baez has a hit against him, but the sample size for the entire team is 13 plate appearances.
Sunday: Jon Lester vs. Junior Guerra
Aside from his starts against the Giants in May and the Mets and Pirates this month, Lester has thrown a quality start in each of his other starts this season. His most recent start was encouraging after a month of June (and really early July) that wreaked havoc on nearly allof the starting staff. Against the Mets, he gave up just one run in nearly eight innings. As he’s shown with his string of quality starts this season, Lester is a safe one to bet on. He will be facing the Brewers for the first time this season, but only Ryan Braun has notable success against him (.385 in 14 plate appearances, but only one extra base hit).
Guerra has been a pleasant surprise this year. The 31-year-old pitched only sparsely for the White Sox last year, but he has looked like a very different pitcher in 2016. This could be from a slight increase in how often he’s using his fastball, and he’s also begun using a sinker this season, though only a handful of times so far. Over at BP Milwaukee, they’ve discussed what might be working for Guerra and whether or not he can sustain it, and the Cubs will certainly be familiar with what he did to them back in May. In that game, it was his splitter that was Chicago’s undoing, and it’s no surprise, as the pitch gets a whiff rate of nearly 22 percent. The sample sizes from past at bats against among Cubs hitters against Guerra are too tiny to draw any grand conclusions from, but Sunday might be a strikeout heavy day.
What to Watch For
Today will be one of roster changes. Dexter Fowler is expected to return tonight, newly acquired Mike Montgomery (read Rian Watt’s transaction analysis here) should be in uniform, and possibly Joe Nathan later in the weekend as well. Of the recent additions and returns, Fowler being back at the top of the lineup should prove to galvanize an offense that has remained mostly productive even in his absence, and Montgomery’s usage will be interesting to track. He has the ability to start, but he looks to bring the most benefit to the bullpen as a 6th or 7th inning bridge, or even a LOOGY from time to time. Jorge Soler is also rehabbing in Iowa, though his return is not anticipated tonight, and might not come until the series with the White Sox.
More immediately, the Cubs have recently looked closer to their early-season selves. Both the offense and the pitching staff appear to have benefited from a few days off in the last week or so. On the whole, this is a series that should offer at least two wins, though the Brewers were tricky for the Cubs to solve when they visited Milwaukee two months ago.
Game Times, Broadcast Information, Etc.
Tonight is the latest start time, at 7:10 pm CT, and the game is airing on CSN+ in local markets. Tomorrow night, the two teams get started an hour earlier, and WGN has the TV broadcast. The series finale on Sunday airs at 1:10 pm CT, and ABC has that broadcast.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Hanisch—USA Today Sports.