Earlier in the season, writing the Pirates out of the playoff picture probably would have been a safe bet. Not a sure thing, but especially when they sold off their closer at the deadline, things did not appear as if Pittsburgh would be getting even their usual one-and-done playoff appearance.
But that’s part of the magic of the 162-game season. Because just a few weeks later, they’ve claimed their position in the wild card hunt. At just a half game behind the Cardinals, these three games will bear much more weight for them than they will for the Cubs. After all, the Cubs of 2016 are really a rarity. Not just in the history of the franchise, but in baseball in general. It is uncommon for a team to possess such a commanding lead in the division that by the end of July their place in the playoffs is a near certainty.
For these three days, the Pirates will be clawing to move ahead of the Cardinals, which will be difficult with St. Louis paired up against the Brewers to begin this week. It’s worth mentioning before we move on that the Cubs are in a drastically different position. They’re comfortably ahead and planning for October. Don’t let the individual results between now and Wednesday night create a false narrative. With that said, let’s get to it.
Monday: Jake Arrieta vs. Steven Brault
In four starts against the Pirates, Arrieta has an ERA of 2.67, and they’ve barely hit over the Mendoza line. Though he’s been more human on the mound this season, Arrieta is well positioned to finish with at or very near 20 wins again, but that is just as much a product of the quality of the team that is playing around him. Arrieta’s other numbers have shown that he’s not even pitching to 2014 form. His cFIP of 91 this season is the highest it’s been since he was still with the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, and his oppTAv is the highest it’s been since Baltimore as well. But this isn’t to suggest that he’s lost his effectiveness. True, he’s walking more batters than he did in 2014 or 2015, but his WHIP still sits just barely above 1.00 and his strikeout rate is only marginally lower.
Arrieta flashed a glimpse of his previous self against the Padres last Tuesday, and given his success against the Pirates in the past, there’s reason to feel good about him in tonight’s game. Only Andrew McCutchen and Matt Joyce have hit him well, and that should come as no surprise in McCutchen’s case. Joyce is 7 for 20 with two doubles and a homer, but all of those came when Joyce was still with the Rays and Arrieta was still with the Orioles. Since the two have come to the National League, Joyce is 0 for 6 with three strikeouts.
Brault is a left handed starter returning from Triple-A Indianapolis to make tonight’s start in Gerrit Cole’s absence. Cole has experienced some elbow soreness, a scary symptom for any pitcher, so Pittsburgh is playing it carefully here. It’s a rough draw for Brault, but it’s not his first start for the Pirates this season. His last start in the majors came against the Brewers on July 29, and this will be the first time he’s faced the Cubs. Brault has a pretty run of the mill three pitch arsenal with a fastball, changeup, and slider. He appears to use the fastball to set up the other two pitches to get swings and misses, and he does fairly well with the change at a nearly 18 percent clip. Cubs batters are most likely to see the fastball first in each at bat.
Tuesday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Chad Kuhl
Hendricks has been absolutely stingy with the runs he’s allowed this season, especially since mid-May, a stretch in which he’s not given up more than three runs in any of his starts. If the Pirates are going to do damage against Hendricks tomorrow night, it’s most likely to come at the hands of Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison, or Jordy Mercer. Polanco is 6 for 14 with two doubles and a home run, and Harrison is 4 for 10 with a double and a home run. Mercer has managed four hits in ten at bats, but all four of those hits are singles.
The Pirates’ right handed rookie has been impressive in his eight starts so far this season. Kuhl faced the Cubs on July 9 and didn’t fare so well. Though the Pirates went on to win, he couldn’t make it out of the third inning. He’s pitched a quality start each time out since then. Kuhl throws four pitches, including a powerful slider. That pitch gets an over 18 percent whiff rate and he employs it most often with two strikes and/or when he gets ahead in the count. The slider is accompanied by a fastball and a sinker that he uses almost evenly, and a sparsely used changeup. Right handed batters will probably see the fastball or slider first, but lefties are most likely getting his sinker on the first pitch.
Wednesday: Mike Montgomery vs. Ryan Vogelsong
Montgomery has been a pleasant surprise as a spot starter and stand-in for John Lackey. While Lackey is expected back in time for his next start, Montgomery might be worth considering as a part of a six man rotation until the regular season closes. This will be just his third start for the Cubs, and after just 60 pitches in his first start, he threw 91 against the Dodgers on Friday, so look for whether or not Joe Maddon decides to let him flirt with 90 or even 100 pitches on Wednesday. This will be the first real look at Montgomery for the Pirates, as only David Freese has any prior experience against him.
The right handed Vogelsong missed a large chunk of the season, but he’s making his sixth start since returning, and he’s been solid for the Pirates in that time. Of the Cubs batters, he’s seen the most of Miguel Montero, but the two haven’t faced each other since 2014. Montero has hit him well (.281/.378./.375), but it’s Jason Heyward who has the best track record against Wednesday’s starter. Heyward is 5 for 14 with a double, a home run, and three walks, but what’s most interesting is that in 17 plate appearances, Vogelsong has never struck him out. Vogelsong likes to lead at bats with his sinker, though a bit more so against left handed hitters. The sinker is one of five pitches Vogelsong uses, but it’s definitely his go-to.
What to Watch For:
I hinted at this earlier, but the stakes in a series like this are very, very different for the two teams. This is not at all to suggest that the Cubs will let their collective foot off of the gas, but like the series that just concluded in Los Angeles, their opponent needs to win. How this really impacts the outcome on the field is hard to measure, but the Cubs will be doing more experimentation with their roster along with looking for opportunities to rest some of the regulars in the days before the rosters expand, so this is really only a potential statement series for Pittsburgh.
The Mike Montgomery start on Wednesday will likely be short, but after letting him throw 91 pitches against the Dodgers, he’s possibly ready to go longer than four or five innings. He was definitely shaky in his first few appearances in a Cubs uniform, but has since settled in to be a very effective weapon for the pitching staff.
Game times and Broadcast Info:
All times listed are Central Time Zone
It’s a string of night games in this series with all three starting at 7:05. The only thing that changes is when WGN takes the Tuesday night broadcast. CSN will carry both Monday and Wednesday, and all three games can be heard on the radio on 670 AM. Along with CSN on Wednesday, ESPN will carry that game nationally.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.