Series Preview: Cubs and White Sox, July 25-28

This is the weird new version of the interleague rivalry series that unfolds whenever teams are playing some division other than their direct counterpart in interleague play that year. As such, the Cubs and White Sox will play four consecutive games this week, but split them between their two home parks. Accordingly, each side will go through at least two different sets of uniforms—but Chris Sale should come back from his suspension and pitch Thursday night, so adjust that figure upward on the Sox’s side.

But seriously, folks: the Cubs have won three straight series coming out of the All-Star break, and with the White Sox reeling, they have a chance to keep that momentum going this week. The Cubs will miss Sox sous-ace Jose Quintana, who pitched Sunday, and send Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks in the two road games of the series. It sets up really nicely for them.

Probable Starters: 

Monday: Arrieta v. Miguel Gonzalez

It hardly seems possible that this will be just Arrieta’s second start since the All-Star break, given all that has happened in Cubdom since then. It’s true, though, and so this matchup will carry particular interest. Arrieta was dominant Tuesday night against the Mets. He appeared confident using all five of his pitches (sinker, slider, curveball, four-seam fastball, changeup), and indeed, mixed them more than he had in over two months. Arrieta’s sinker usage has skyrocketed this season, and he leaned particularly hard on the pitch throughout the tough stretch he endured from mid-May through the end of the first half. Whether that was more about trusting that pitch (but executing it poorly) or not having a feel for his secondary stuff, it’s clear that Arrieta is at his best when he blends his offerings more, and is only truly brilliant when he has both the slider and curve working. When he does, though, he can carve up even good big-league lineups. The White Sox don’t have a good big-league lineup. Arrieta threw just 85 pitches Tuesday. If the recovery of which he showed some sign last week was real, he should dominate the Sox Monday night.

Gonzalez is, like Arrieta, a late bloomer brought over from Baltimore. However, he was never on Arrieta’s level as a pitcher, and it looks like the sun might have set on his time as even an average big-league hurler. He throws the kitchen sink, when it can be pried from the clubhouse walls. Failing that, he seeks to work the edges of the zone, with a four-seam fastball, a splitter, a cutter (formerly more of a true slider), a sinker, and a curveball he can throw in two different velocity bands. He typically sits in the low 90s, velocity-wise, touching 93 (though less often than he used to). After debuting as a 28-year-old rookie for the surprising 2012 Orioles, Gonzalez put together two and a half years of very strong starting work—a 3.45 ERA in over 435 innings, though his peripheral indicators showed a consistently below-average pitcher.

Since the start of 2015, the surface-level numbers have ballooned to match the others. Gonzalez has made 40 starts over that span, with a 4.73 ERA and a DRA north of 4.80. He’s using the cutter more and more, has made the aforementioned switch from the slider to the cutter, and is still finding success against right-handed hitters by pounding them with sinkers off the plate inside. The loss of the slider as a true weapon, though, has crippled him. Gonzalez used that pitch to get some whiffs and a lot of weak contact in his early days. Recently, though, he’s struggling to locate it well enough to entice as many swings—he’s tended to run it too far off the plate away from righties to make the pitch tempting. The cutter is easier to command, but doesn’t keep hitters off his fastball as effectively. His four-seamer remains eminently hittable, and easy to elevate, which has been an increasingly pressing problem.

Tuesday: Hendricks v. James Shields

Hendricks simply has the league tying itself in knots whenever he’s on the mound. For a long time, he seemed to be a limited starter, a guy who couldn’t plow through the opposing lineup a third time because he didn’t have a third pitch capable of keeping batters honest. Maybe, a little bit, that’s still true: As this season has progressed, though, Hendricks has steadily increased his use of both his four-seam fastball and his curveball. In particular, he’s using the four-seamer to mess with the timing and reading of pitches by opponents the first time through the order, and the curveball to create a new velocity band (again, disrupting timing) thereafter.

Neither that four-seam heater (averaging about 89 miles per hour, and not getting many ground balls) nor the curve (which doesn’t miss bats or induce chases the way good breaking balls usually do, and so is limited to situations in which Hendricks needs either a called strike or a ground ball) is really a good pitch. Neither has to be. Folding command into a scouting assessment, both Hendricks’s sinker and his changeup rate as plus or better. That’s incredibly hard to find. Having other pitches good enough to tickle the back of an opposing hitter’s mind, on top of those offerings, is enough to elevate a good pitcher to the level above good.

Speaking of good, Shields has been (superficially) just that over his last handful of starts. Traded after a disastrous stretch in San Diego, Shields began his White Sox career with four starts in which he recorded a total of 41 outs, allowed 29 hits, watched 25 runs cross the plate, and walked more batters (13) than he struck out (8). Since then, however, he has a 2.10 ERA in five starts. Now, he’s allowed six home runs in those five starts, and is still not striking out many batters or limiting walks especially well. Still, there are signs of life. His stuff is flatter and less viable than ever, but Shields still has a whole bunch of pitches, a fair amount of raw arm strength, and enough command to remain an effective (if inconsistent) veteran starter.

Wednesday: Jacob Turner v. Jason Hammel

Cubs fans remember Turner as the guy who fell into the Cubs’ lap in late 2014, but who didn’t pan out. The Marlins (to the surprise and confusion of many) placed Turner on irrevocable waivers two Augusts ago, when he was still very much seen as an injury-riddled but projectable pitcher. He has a live arm (including a well-liked curveball, at one point), and some fast-fading prospect pedigree, but in the time since the Cubs claimed him and worked out a very low-level trade, Turner has largely withered on the vine.

The Cubs viewed him as a potential rotation candidate heading into spring training last year, but Turner had elbow trouble, and never made it onto a big-league mound in 2015. This year, having drifted to the White Sox, Turner has made two starts, allowed 12 runs on 12 hits and seven walks, and appears to be on the brink of permanently disappearing into the TINSTAAPP ether.

Hammel, on the other hand, is getting stronger and stronger. Long plagued by a narrative that said he can’t pitch n the second half, and by concerns about minor injury issues, Hammel has asserted the legitimacy of his claim to a spot in the playoff rotation over the last three starts. The five-homer, 10-run shellacking the Mets laid on Hammel on July 1 can’t be erased from the record, but it looks increasingly like a mere blip, an outlier. Maddon is using the big right-hander gently; Hammel hasn’t thrown more than 93 pitches in any start since June 4. That might turn out to be the trick to coaxing Hammel through a full season without burning him out.

Thursday: Chris Sale v. John Lackey

By the time this matchup takes place, one pitcher’s work will be cut out for him. If the Cubs have won at least two of the first three games, that will cut the tension and stop the Cardinals from shaving anything off what starts as a 7.5-game lead in the NL Central. If the Sox win, though, Cubs fans might have a familiar and uncomfortable throwback of a feeling, to years like 1977 (the year after 1976, for what it’s worth) when the Cubs started strong, then stumbled badly.

John Lackey will seek to slash his way through the White Sox, clipping the edges of the plate as often as possible. With Sale on the mound for the White Sox, Willson Contreras figures to slice ever deeper into Miguel Montero’s role as the starting catcher—which is unfortunate, because Montero has been improving at the plate, and is clearly a cut above Contreras as a defensive catcher.

Chris Sale will start for the White Sox, and figures to uniformly dominate the Cubs, as he always has. On the other hand, though, Kris Bryant’s All-Star home run tears at the fabric of Sale’s invincibility narrative. He’ll slice up the left-handed hitters with his angled fastball and wicked slider, and his changeup should cut down right-handers’ batting averages a bit.

What to Watch For:

There is no shortage of talking points here. The Cubs will field an AL lineup on both Monday and Tuesday, the first time they’ve done so since the first two games of the season—when Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber were around. As things stand, Anthony Rizzo and Bryant could each get starts at DH, to spare them the field for a day, or Dexter Fowler could, to slow the pace at which he’s worked back into the lineup. In any case, it will be a tremendous relief to see both Arrieta and Hendricks pulled precisely when their performance warrants, and not for pinch-hitters. Meanwhile, the offense might find itself galvanized by the opportunity to operate without the hangup of the pitcher’s spot killing rallies and stopping momentum.

It will be worth watching Lackey and Hammel every time they’re on the mound for a while, with Mike Montgomery waiting in the wings if either guy looks untenable. The Cubs’ bullpen will also be a constant source of conversation and attention, throughout the series and going forward, whether the team completes its rumored deal for Aroldis Chapman or not. The reshaped relief corps might be called many things, but it certainly won’t be boring.

Game Times, Broadcast Info, Etc.: Monday night’s game will start at 7:05, and you can find the Cubs’ broadcast duo on ABC 7. Tuesday night, ESPN will carry the game nationally, and it will start at 6:10. (Len kasper and Jim Deshaies will call the contest on CSN Chicago.) Wednesday night, back at Wrigley, viewers outside the Chicago area can again watch on ESPN. Locals can watch on WGN. The game starts at 7:05. So does Thursday’s, when the bright lights of national TV will no longer shine, and Len and JD will be back on CSN Chicago.

 Lead photo courtesy Joe Nicholson—USA TODAY Sports.

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