This season opened in Anaheim, and much of what made the Cubs the Cubs then has changed. Kyle Schwarber is no longer a part of the left field platoon, the bullpen is almost entirely reconfigured, and the depth of the minor league system has been tapped somewhat in order to ensure as best as possible that this year is the year. That question is still a long way from being answered, but as the Cubs returned from the west coast on the high of back to back series sweeps, the expectation is that two games at Wrigley against the struggling Angels will only further the success that the team has been enjoying.
The Angels are about as far below .500 as the Cubs are above it, and they come into this series on a four game losing streak. Their division is right now dominated by the Rangers, and Anaheim would be sitting in the cellar of the AL West, if not for the Oakland Athletics, who could tell them a warning tale or two about their upcoming opponent.
The biggest pitfall for the Cubs going into these games might be the temptation to overlook them. It’s hard to know how much players do this, but knowing how often it can happen with fans and those otherwise looking in, it wouldn’t be surprising if a two game series against a much weaker opponent just prior to four games at home against a heated divisional foe whom they look to bury even further in the standings is one that doesn’t get their full attention. It’s two games that might look unimportant now, but the Angels aren’t coming to Chicago to be rolled over, so assuming another two game sweep of them will come easy is probably not safe.
Tuesday: John Lackey vs. Jered Weaver
Lackey has made his desires plain in coming to the Cubs, and for the most part, he’s done the job he came here to do. If not for the surprisingly sterling pitching of Kyle Hendricks this season, Lackey would be anchoring the middle of the rotation. It might be because of what Hendricks has done that Lackey’s work on the mound isn’t the standout that it could be otherwise. Lackey’s ERA has jumped from the career low 2.77 that he posted last year, but his K/9 is up to 9.08 over 2015’s 7.22, and his WARP currently sits at nearly double what it was with the Cardinals last season, though using WARP as a measuring stick for pitchers is tricky. The point is that the 37 year old pitcher is showing so far that his success in St. Louis last season was not a blip, as many of his numbers this season are strikingly similar to 2015, or even better in some cases.
In his last three starts, Lackey has thrown a quality start in each of them and has collected 17 strikeouts in 19 innings, but he’s also given up three home runs. It’s very likely that the Angels will score at least a few runs tonight, as Lackey has had a scoreless outing just three times this season, with the most recent one going back to June 8 against the Phillies. Simply put, he’s going to strike out a lot of batters, but he’ll also give up plenty of hits and likely a few runs. Against Jered Weaver, the Cubs offense will probably be called upon to plate more than a few on Tuesday night.
Weaver, for his part, is not well known for his velocity, but he’s pitched at least somewhat successfully for over a decade now, so what he does works to an extent. He has just one scoreless outing this season, a complete game shutout of Oakland on June 19, but he had just one strikeout in that game. Weaver has a six pitch mix, but his cutter is rarely used. Otherwise, the Cubs batters will see a pretty even split of his fastball, change, slider, curve, and sinker. The change and the curve yield the highest whiff rate, and his change is the pitch that opposing batters have offered at the most this season.
Wednesday: Jason Hammel vs. Ricky Nolasco
Hammel has been a pleasant surprise in the second half of this season so far. The past two years in particular have conditioned us to expect that Hammel will come apart right around the time when the calendar rolls to July, but so far that hasn’t been the case this year. His July 1 disaster against the Mets aside, Hammel has been above and beyond not just what would be expected of him in the second half, but of a fifth starter in general. Of his five starts since July 1, he has three quality starts, and most recently held the Marlins scoreless for six innings and gave up just four hits. Prior to that, it was one run in seven innings against the White Sox, so there might be reason enough to buy into Hammel as having turned a corner in this regard.
Nolasco struggled a bit in his first start for the Angels since leaving the Minnesota Twins at the trade deadline. While he did go six innings on August 4 against the Athletics, he gave up five runs and three home runs. Though Nolasco has six different pitches he can go to, it’s really a pretty even split between his fastball, sinker, and slider. None of his pitches come with a whole lot of velocity, but his slider has a near 15 percent whiff rate.
What to Watch For: Given his hot return to the lineup in Oakland and now that he can no longer be used as a designated hitter, it’s worth keeping an eye on how often and in what way Jorge Soler is used. Like everyone else, his role will have to be somewhat fluid, but so far he’s hit well enough to merit as regular of starts as Joe Maddon can find for him.
The Cubs are playing well in all facets since returning from the break, and realistically two games at home against the Angels should end as two wins. More specifically, Kris Bryant broke his home run drought that had been going since July 27, and he has shown a tendency to hit in bunches, so expect him to feast on Angels pitching.
Gametimes and Broadcast Info
Both games start at 7:05 CT, and tonight’s game can be found on WGN and 670 AM on the radio. On Wednesday, the Cubs will be on CSN+ locally along with 670 AM on the radio as well.
Lead photo courtesy Kelvin Kuo—USA Today Sports.