The Cubs and Cardinals have played several drama-filled and meaningful September series in recent memory. The Cubs chasing a playoff spot last year took 2 of 3 from the Cardinals twice in September. Any mention of important September series between these two teams must include the 5 game series to the start the month in 2003. The Cubs taking 4 of 5 that series is often cited as the springboard for the eventual division crown won that year. This series does not have any of that drama as the Cubs winning the division is an eventuality at this point. There is so little drama that fans can reasonably discuss wther they would prefer clinching the division with a series sweep in St. Louis or waiting to have it happen at Wrigley Field after the series concludes.
Still, there are an awful lot of Cardinal shaped demons to exorcise, and inching closer to 100 victories on the season at the expense of the Cardinals postseason chances is entertaining even without the added tension.
Monday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Mike Leake
The MLB ERA leader takes the ball in the series opener for the Cubs. Hendricks certainly has looked Maddux-like in 2016. He has thrown his curve ball more recently in the past two months, but the formula remains largely the same with a heavy dose of sinkers and four seam fastballs. The change up remains the wipe-out pitch, but there has been a sharp uptick in whiffs on the four seam fastball as well. This has been entirely based on command and setting up the pitch given that his maximum velocity has been 91.5 mph on the pitch.
Mike Leake has had an up and down season, but his 3.85 ERA nearly matches his DRA of 3.84. Leake is back to throwing sinkers nearly 50 percent of the time. Leake has almost entirely ditched the four seam fastball at this point. Leake has been hit often but not hard the past couple of months. The sinker has been hit well for well over a .300 batting average since July. He hasn’t given up a home run since July 29th though.
Tuesday: Jason Hammel vs. Jaime Garcia
Jason Hammel will try to prevent the return of the dreaded second half Hammel. He has had a solid season overall, but the recent clunkers call into question whether he will have a spot on the playoff roster. His fastball-slider combination should play up in the bullpen, but there are a lot of solid choices for that role. Hammel’s slider is his most effective pitch, but his usage of it has declined since the near 40 percent thrown in May. That is until his one start in September. Hammel has been hit hard. This is especially true of his rarely thrown curve ball.
Jaime Garcia has struggled in his last five starts. His ERA sits at 8.06 and he has given up 3.16 HR/9 in starts since August 16. The real problem in August and September is how hard the fastball has been hit. That isn’t surprising given the games where he has lost command of the pitch and the results are predictable when that happens. Garcia does have an effective change up and that has given more than a few young Cubs hitters fits in the past.
Wednesday: Jon Lester vs. Carlos Martinez
Jon Lester draws the start in the finale. This was just announced yesterday, and most importantly it sets up Lester to pitch Game 1 of the NLDS. Joe Maddon obviously is playing it tight to the vest with the potential postseason rotation, but Lester is the obvious choice for Game 1 starter given the roll he is on right now. Lester is most effective when he is commanding his fastball combination of cutters, four seamers, and sinkers. Lester had nearly abandoned the sinker in the middle of the season, but his usage in August and September are back above 10 percent His secondary pitches of the curve and change have also been exceedingly effective. Right now everything is working for Lester.
Carlos Martinez has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher. He is their ERA leader by far at 3.05, but his cFIP is actually the same as Mike Leake at 96. His DRA is also closer to Leake’s at 3.72 than his actual ERA. Martinez relies primarily on his mid-90s sinker, but his reliance on that pitch has been decreasing each month. Martinez features a fairly even distribution of his two mid 90s fastballs, change ups and sliders. The same stretch that Garcia has been struggling has seen Martinez thrive with a 1.85 ERA. Hitters have struggled to square up any of his pitches recently with the effective pitch selection, stuff and command.
What to Watch for
The Cubs lineup broke out last night against the Astros after struggling to come up with big, run scoring hits the three games prior. The Cubs’ top of the order is set with the combination of Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist the catalyst for any deep run in the postseason. But what will be interesting is finding the other bats most likely to extend the lineup in the postseason. The large lead will allow Maddon to pick spots to rest players, but also provide chances to get some guys started again. Willson Contreras is heavily in the adjusting to adjustments phase of his development. On July 7 his slash line stood a healthy .319/.397/.623 and his play during that stretch caused Joe Maddon to refer to him as oxygen. Since that date, Contreras has hit only .236/.313/.365. That has opened the door slightly for Miguel Montero to play his way back onto the playoff roster while starting to hit a little again.
Jason Heyward was showing signs of life following his break during the Colorado series, but he finds himself mired in another long 0 fer streak at 17 at bats. If it wasn’t for his 3 hits against the Giants on September 4 he would have gone 7 games without reaching base consecutively. The Cubs could use another high contact, left handed bat to extend the lineup. Heyward should still be on the playoff roster for more reasons than the contract, but it would be nice if he could be just a shell of the guy that played in St. Louis last year. Tommy La Stella will likely find a start or two in the series, and so seeing how these guys compete for those potential roster spots and starts in the postseason is fascinating.
Broadcast Channels, Game Times
All start times are Central Standard Time
The Cubs start the series Monday at 7:15 on Comcast SportsNet, and play the second game Tuesday at 7:15 on ABC WLS. The series finale on Wednesday is also on ABC, but is a 12:45 start time on get away day.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.