We know by now that this series is about clinching. We know by now that it’s rather unlikely that it won’t happen while the Milwaukee Brewers are in town. That’s a dubious honor for them to hold, sure, but with just over two weeks left of the regular season games to play before they are done for the fall and winter, perhaps there’s some incentive to try and at least delay the champagne party for the Cubs.
At best they might be able to hold it off for a day, maybe two, because after the shellacking of the Cardinals on Wednesday, the “magic number” for the Cubs stands at just one, and all it would take is a Cardinals loss for the division fate to be officially sealed.
For both teams, their eyes are at least a bit on the future, though the range of that future is quite different. For the Cubs, it’s just about next month. For the Brewers, it’s the year after next, or even farther away than that. That’s a familiar spot for Cubs fans, but for now, they savor the chance to relish in what is easily among the strongest Cubs teams in franchise history.
But for now, it’s just about the next four games, so let’s take a look at what lies ahead.
Thursday: LHP Mike Montgomery vs. RHP Jimmy Nelson
Right now Montgomery’s job is somewhat simple. He’s there to provide a buffer in the rotation so that the rest of the starters are relied upon less in the final weeks of the regular season. Whatever innings he can eat up and save the bullpen some work, fine. The expectations are pretty low here, but Montgomery has been a pleasant surprise. In all four of his starts for the Cubs, he’s gone at least four innings, but his most recent start was especially encouraging. Against the Brewers last Wednesday, he held them to just one run in five innings while striking out six. What becomes of Montgomery when the postseason comes is unclear, but he’s been quietly valuable to the Cubs in the closing weeks of the season.
Nelson’s numbers have dipped in nearly every way possible from 2015, and he’s just the kind of pitcher the Cubs can jump on early and build a strong lead before Montgomery turns this game over to the bullpen. The last time Nelson faced the Cubs, back in August, he coughed up six runs in five innings. Even with the caboose of the rotation going for the Cubs in this game, it remains a favorable matchup for the Cubs.
Friday: RHP John Lackey vs. RHP Chase Anderson
Lackey’s addition to the rotation this offseason was about bolstering for the postseason. He’s built nicely on the success of 2015 with an equally impressive season this year. He has not had a scoreless outing since June, but he’s gone deep in many of his games of late – a valuable trait when the bullpen arms are likely to get heavier use in October. Lackey missed a chunk of August with a shoulder injury, but in his two starts since returning, he has not missed a beat.
Anderson stands to potentially be facing the Cubs JV squad, depending on how things turn out tonight. Whether or not that proves to be the case, he’s fared well in both of his previous starts, blanking both the Pirates and Cardinals. Scuffling though the Pirates might be, he scattered five hits across five innings without allowing a run on September 4, and then did roughly the same to the Cardinals on September 10. He has potential to be a talented and very useful starter, but he remains somewhat green at this stage in his career, so the Cubs offense — whatever that looks like on Friday — should be able to handle his arsenal without much struggle.
Saturday: RHP Jake Arrieta vs. RHP Zach Davies
Something is definitely amiss with Arrieta this season. This feels a bit unfair, given a 2.91 ERA and 92 cFIP this season. Both are respectable numbers, but when measured against the work he’s done in the past, they probably look worse than they actually are. Arrieta has demonstrated far less of an ability to go deep into games like he did last season, probably due in part to a BB/9 that has nearly doubled from last season. He’s shown that he can give a few innings of nearly flawless performance, but just does not sustain it like he did just last year.
Davies might be the poor man’s Kyle Hendricks, but given how Hendricks has pitched this year, that’s not exactly something to scoff at. In his first full season as a starter, Davies has cut down on his walk rate, improved his strikeout rate, and dropped his cFIP and DRA. What the coming years might look like for Davies will be interesting to follow, but as for Saturday, he has a tough draw.
Sunday: RHP Kyle Hendricks vs. RHP Wily Peralta
The Cy Young candidacy of Hendricks was bolstered by his near no-hitter earlier this week against the Cardinals. Only those who have followed the career of Hendricks most closely might have suspected what he was capable of, but his 2016 season has probably surpassed even their expectations. His changeup has been ruthless against opposing hitters (25 percent whiff rate), and he gives up such a small amount of hard contact that they have struggled to produce more than a handful of runs against him all season.
For the Brewers, Peralta is going to give up runs. And probably a lot of them. He’s never pitched this season without allowing at least a few to score, and though he lasted into the eighth inning in his lone start against the Cubs this season, they tagged him for four runs on six hits – three of which were home runs.
What to Watch For:
This series lacks any true drama, but instead a sense of inevitability. A loss tonight would be a mere frustration at the possible delay in clinching the division. However, if the Cardinals lose to the Giants tonight, the Cubs could clinch anyway, much like they did last season.
Whenever it does happen, this series, and really the rest of this regular season, becomes fully about playoff preparation. Expect to see not only rest for the regulars, but more players being used in spots where they’re being tested. Things that might make some of us scratch our heads a bit at first, but things that provide helpful insight for Joe Maddon and his coaching staff and helpful experience for the player.
This is not to suggest that the Cubs won’t have anything to play for in these final weeks – there’s still home field advantage in the playoffs to be secured.
But as a whole, this season has been almost bland because of how consistently good the Cubs have been from the start. Even in their worst stretch of the season, the Cubs saw their lead in the division drop to five games, a lead that teams in other divisions would find rather comfortable by comparison. Don’t expect the playoffs to be as drama-free, however. For now, let’s enjoy the simplicity of September baseball when our team is over 40 games above .500. It’s refreshingly dull.
Game times and Broadcast Info:
All times CST
There’s a lot of afternoon baseball to be had this weekend. Tonight is the lone exception, with a 7:05 pm start on CSN. Tomorrow afternoon, the Cubs and Brewers square off at 1:20, again on CSN, and on Saturday first pitch comes and 3:05 and that game can be found on WGN. Finally, the Sunday finale is another 1:20 start, and it can be seen on ABC. All four games can also be heard on 670 AM as well.
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.