I want to take you back to a simpler time, a time before iPhones, Twitter, and Google Docs. It’s 2003, and the Cubs are facing the
Miami Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field in late July. Both teams are right around .500 and they weren’t exactly big rivals at the time, which makes the matchup pretty forgettable. The Cubs took two of three with a 16-2 win that saw them club nine doubles and score six runs in two innings off starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis. The win moved Chicago to within 4.5 games of first place, while the Marlins were now six games out in the wild card—and trailing four teams.
But that un-noteworthy series in the dog days of summer between the Cubs and Marlins would simply be a precursor to what would end up being the most memorable—and unfortunate—Cubs playoff series to date. Nobody had any clue, at the time, that they were watching two teams that would get hot and make a run into the playoffs—with those pesky, annoying Marlins leapfrogging all of those wild card contenders, beating the San Francisco Giants, the Cubs, and then the New York Yankees to win the World Series.
So why is this important? It’s not, really. But the MLB-best Cubs come into this mid-summer series with the Marlins at Wrigley looking to pick up more victories in their quest to take the NL Central division title, while the Marlins are doing everything they can to hang on in the wild card chase—and the NL East, where they’re now just four games behind Washington. If things fall just right, this series could be a preview of the NLDS, or possibly even the NLCS, for the Cubs.
As if Cubs fans haven’t had enough anxiety about the 2016 season, why not top it with a Cubs and Marlins playoff series, right?
Adam Conley vs. Kyle Hendricks
Conley has been the Marlins’ second-best pitcher this season, posting a 3.38 ERA, 3.81 FIP, and 3.95 DRA this season in 117 1/3 innings. The left-hander throws mostly fastballs, averaging around 92 mph, with a changeup and a slider. He’s also never faced the Cubs before, which anecdotally means that we’re in for five no-hit innings from Conley before the Cubs end up scratching out a bunch of runs all at once. Hendricks gets his extra day of rest, thanks to the three innings Brian Matusz was able to give the Cubs in their come-from-behind, 7-6 victory over the Seattle Mariners last night. If measuring by simply ERA, Hendricks has been the third-best pitcher in baseball behind only Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. In his last 12 starts, Hendricks has a 1.78 ERA in 75 2/3 innings pitched.
Jose Fernandez vs. Jason Hammel
This one is the marquee matchup, ace vs. ace. Jose Fernandez against Jason Hammel. Okay, maybe it’s more ace vs. guy you hope gives you six innings without allowing five home runs. On the whole, Hammel has been quite good so far this season, with a 3.23 ERA in 114 1/3 innings pitched. Since his awful, 10 earned run, five-homer game against the New York Mets, he’s actually been pretty good—in four starts, he has a 2.35 ERA. But Fernandez may be the best pitcher in the National League right now. In the 13 starts prior to his recent stinker against—of course—the St. Louis Cardinals, Fernandez had a 1.86 ERA with 128 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 87 innings pitched. Fernandez is the kind of pitcher you fear facing twice in a playoff series, but the good news here is that if the Marlins don’t win their division they’d likely have to burn Fernandez in the wild card game, much like the Cubs did with Arrieta last year, leaving him only available for one start in the NLDS.
Tom Koehler vs. John Lackey
Lackey nearly had to get into last night’s game, before Jason Heyward (!) hit a ball that hit near the top of the wall, nearly ending the game in the 12th inning. He would move to third and then score on an improbable two-strike squeeze bunt by pinch-hitter Jon Lester, saving Lackey from making his first relief appearance since 2004—and just the second of his career. Lackey had a good game in the Cubs 3-1 win over the White Sox his last time out, tossing six innings and allowing just one earned run. The Cubs had been 1-5 in his previous six starts. Koehler is nothing special on the mound, but he makes for a solid number-four or five starter. He has a 4.18 ERA with a 4.26 FIP, which are also right around his career numbers in both categories. He doesn’t strike out a ton of batters, with just 7.0 K/9, and also has walked 4.3 per nine this year. He’s started four games against the Cubs in his career and has a 4.24 ERA in those games.
What to watch for
This is a battle between two teams coming off of exciting finishes in their previous game. The Cubs have their unexpected victory over the Mariners, while the Marlins had a walk off win on a little-league homer against the Cardinals. Much like that series back in 2003, there might be a feeling of destiny in both dugouts during these three games at Wrigley Field. Miami is 13-7 in their last 20 games and just made a deal for starting pitchers Andrew Cashner and Colin Rea, formerly of the San Diego Padres. They’re going for it in a big way, and with an ace like Fernandez, I wouldn’t want to run into this good, young team in a one-game playoff or a short series.
The first game of the series will be broadcast on WGN, while the middle game will be broadcast on Comcast SportsNet Chicago (CSN+), with both starting at 7:05pm CST. The final game in the series will be a 1:20pm CST start and broadcast on Comcast SportsNet in the local market, while MLBNetwork will have the game for those outside of the Chicago viewing area. WSCR, 670 The Score, will have all three games on the radio with Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer.
Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchelll—USA Today Sports.