Heading into the All-Star break, it was the San Francisco Giants, not the Chicago Cubs, who held the best record in baseball. On the surface, that alone would make this four-game series at Wrigley a pretty intriguing set.
But since the break, the Giants have been a bottom-of-the-league 15-27, including an 11-16 August, their worst month’s record of the season. You can point to a couple of different explanations for this. 59 of the Giants’ first 90 games in 2016 did come against losing teams. And there have been injuries too, to the likes of Joe Panik, Hunter Pence, Mac Williamson, Matt Cain, Denard Span, and their best reliever this season to date: Derek Law.
Add to this the Giants’ power struggles—the team’s 22 homers last month are the second-fewest of any team—and the outlook turns fatalistic. Yet San Francisco remains only 1.5 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West, occupying the first Wild Card slot as they ready a challenge for the division. Never quite juggernauts in the mold of the 2016 Cubs, this club has notably found itself in bleaker positions than this in the past, in years when they’ve gone on to claim World Series victories no less.
Unpredictable is the name of the game when it comes to the Giants, but it goes without saying at this point that the Cubs should consider themselves more than capable of taking any series.
Thursday: Mike Montgomery vs. Jeff Samardzija
Game 1 will mark Mike Montgomery’s third start for the Cubs, and his performances so far in this role have been definitely serviceable, for what was needed of him. While Montgomery looked somewhat shaky on command in his last outing, the Cubs’ eventual 10-inning victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was still able to limit the damage to three runs, making quality pitches in high-leverage situations. The lefty threw 91 pitches in that game, with potential to go further in this next outing on extra rest. The keys for Montgomery will be generating grounders on his fastballs with some whiffs on his off-speed pitches mixed in.
Jeff Samardzija, a familiar face around Chicago, has been on a terrific little tear as of late, with a 1.75 ERA in his last four starts. It’s just about the steadiest he’s looked all season, but what’s remained inconsistent is his pitch selection; the Shark’s fourseam usage in 2016 has ranged from 4.50 to 46.67 percent. In some ways, it’s a simple balancing act, given he also has a sinker and cutter to play with (or default to), but then you have instances like Samardzija’s last two games, where he simply threw no sliders. Keep ‘em guessing.
Friday: Jon Lester vs. TBD
Ah, the fearsome “TBD.” In this case, though, there are two main options for the Giants: Albert Suarez and Matt Cain.
Since making his major-league debut in early May, the 26-year-old righty Suarez has fluctuated between reliever and spot starter. He acted as the latter last Saturday against the Braves, lasting 4 and ⅓ innings while allowing three runs on five hits, numbers pretty typical of his offerings to date. Suarez was not used in relief on Wednesday, thus preserving his availability.
Matt Cain is reportedly on target to make Friday’s start, but it’s rarely a great decision these days to bet on his health. Cain holds a 5.81 ERA and 5.41 FIP on the season, and his last start of six or more innings came on May 21. Since then, he’s had three trips to the DL for both hamstring and back issues.
Jon Lester, meanwhile, continues to be a model of consistency, having put up a quality start in each of his five August appearances. Lester’s 3.5 WARP in 2016 leads the Cubs’ rotation, and as Matt Petitt detailed this week at BP Wrigleyville, the lefty’s career-low 0.262 BABIP looks like no accident, due in part to an extreme decrease in launch angle against his go-to cutter. Advantage: Cubs.
Saturday: Jake Arrieta vs. Madison Bumgarner
This match-up has the sheen of an anticipated ace-off, but it’s a battle between two titans who have shown some vulnerability lately. Compared to 2015, Arrieta has certainly shown an earthly form this season (not an ESPN Body Issue reference), though that still means a 3.50 FIP and a 2.84 ERA, numbers which have, granted, benefited from the Cubs’ stand-out defense. Arrieta is looking to improve on Monday night’s six runs allowed to the Pirates, a game which eventually ended in an extra-inning win for the Cubs. With Willson Contreras behind the plate instead of Miguel Montero, the absence of stellar pitch-framing is also something to monitor in Arrieta’s starts.
Possessing a 2.49 ERA, 3.29 FIP, and an invaluable 5.0 WARP, Madison Bumgarner is in the thick of yet another Cy Young chase. August, though, has revealed some cracks; the southpaw totaled season-highs in runs, walks, and home runs during that period, with a season-low in strikeouts. That said, his three-run, seven-inning outing against the Braves last weekend may be a step in the right direction. Or it may just be a natural side-effect of playing the Braves.
Sunday: TBD vs. Johnny Cueto
Depending on how John Lackey’s Thursday bullpen session goes, he could be given the go-ahead to take the mound for Game 4. It would be the 37-year-old’s first start since August 14, a game which he left due to shoulder tightness, later revealed in an MRI to be a DL-worthy strain.
If Lackey is not deemed to be healthy enough, the increasingly Cy-Young-worthy Kyle Hendricks would be next up in the order. That particular scenario would make for a fun duel between pitchers wielding superb changeups, with both Hendricks’ and Johnny Cueto’s generating above-average whiffs and standout movement.
In either case, it’s an exciting challenge, squaring off against Cueto. His last outing against the Diamondbacks was his shortest of the season, spanning 4 and ⅔ innings with four runs and four walks, and it had been wholly decent until that collapse of a fifth inning. Given this, it’s likely Cueto will shimmy his way back into form, one which has gone great lengths to keep the Giants afloat this year.
What to Watch for
Expanded Rosters. Right on time for this series, September 1 brings depth and reinforcements, something which is especially a relief for the ailing Giants. Mac Williamson and Kelby Tomlinson will add to the bench presence, while Josh Osich, Matt Reynolds, Steven Okert, and Ty Blach will patch in for a weakened bullpen. While Osich, Tomlinson, and Williamson especially have a good deal of major-league experience, Blach will be looking to make his debut. The pitching prospect posted a 3.43 ERA with 113 strikeouts in Triple-A Sacramento this year and was named to the 2016 All-PCL team this week.
Tommy La Stella didn’t have to wait for September 1 to make his return to the lineup, but on the whole, the Cubs are not nearly as desperate for reinforcements as the Giants are. You can expect to see guys like Albert Almora, Jr. and Jeimer Candelario getting looks in September, but the real gift of roster expansion will simply come when Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon come off the DL. As far as this series goes, the real benefit in having extra players will be in getting some rest for regulars.
Broadcast Channels, Game Times
Plenty of day games and four different channels this time around. Thursday’s 7:05pm CST Game 1 will air on CSN+, and it will be followed by 1:20pm starts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Friday’s game can be viewed on WGN, Saturday’s on CSN, and Sunday’s on ABC7. 670 The Score has you covered for radio.
Lead photo courtesy Neville E. Guard—USA Today Sports.