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Series Preview: Cubs vs. Reds, September 19-21

With the strange weekend series against the Brewers behind them, the Cubs stay at Wrigley to face the other team holding up the bottom of the NL Central standings. The past series was one of tempered celebration — both because winning the division has felt like an expected inevitability and step in the process toward something much larger for several months now and because the Cubs dropped three of the four games.

But, if baseball can be relied upon for anything, it’s that it will always have a penchant for weirdness and that it will always force us to just keep moving on. There’s no time to dwell on even what happened yesterday, because the action begins anew today.

The Cubs and Reds have not faced each other since early July, and they will square off to begin this week and again to close out the regular season. Their last meeting was marred because it was near the end of a skid into the All Star break for the Cubs, and they lost two of the three games then. Both teams are in a very different place now, though, so let’s dig in to what this series will bring.

Probable Starters:

Monday: RHP Tim Adleman vs. RHP Jason Hammel

Adleman is having a bit of a rough rookie campaign, sporting a 5.42 DRA and 118 cFIP in his 51.1 innings pitched so far. He has been a fairly successful innings eater, going at least five innings in all but one start. He’ll be facing the Cubs for the first time this season with a modest four pitch repertoire. He comes with a fastball, sinker, change, and curve that he dispenses mostly equally. Adleman has used the fastball and sinker almost exactly the same number of times so far, but it’s the fastball and change that get the highest whiff rates. He likes to use the sinker when he gets ahead in the count and is more likely to lead with the fastball against lefties. Otherwise, left handed hitters are going to see more of the change than the curve, and vice versa for righties.

Hammel held off Second Half Jason Hammel as long as he could, but he’s effectively pitched himself out of the playoff rotation at this point. That would have been a tough group to crack anyway, but Hammel’s recent performances have erased any question. He’s been far more effective at Wrigley, and it’s the Reds, so there might be some glimmer of hope here. He missed Cincinnati during the July series, so he’ll be seeing their offense for the first time this year since late April. In two starts that month, he shut them out both times.

Tuesday: TBA vs. LHP Jon Lester

Because of a doubleheader on Saturday, the Reds used usual spot starter Keyvius Sampson somewhat heavily, so there’s still a question mark attached to this game. Due to the thin pitching staff in Cincinnati, Sampson might get the ball tomorrow night anyway, however. If he does, the Cubs will see mostly just his fastball (he throws it nearly 61 percent of the time), but he offers a change, slider, and curve as well. The change and curve get the most swings and misses, and he leans more heavily on the slider against righties versus the change against lefties.

Kyle Hendricks has probably stolen Lester’s thunder to a degree, because ordinarily Chicago would be consumed in talks of Lester as a Cy Young candidate. While he is still deserving, his cerebral counterpart is dominating that conversation in bars, break rooms, and around water coolers. Lester’s performance this year has been nearly on par with both last season and 2014, but he has the blessing and curse of being a part of a very stacked rotation, so it doesn’t always get fully noticed. Like Hammel, Lester hasn’t pitched to the Reds since April. More pertinent, however, might be the fact that he’s coming off of three very brilliant starts in a row. In his last 24 innings pitched, he’s allowed just one run, has walked only three, and has struck out 19.

Wednesday: RHP Robert Stephenson vs. RHP John Lackey

After nearly 140 innings for Triple-A Louisville this season, Stephenson has scuffled as a starter for the Cincinnati Reds. He was never a particularly impressive pitcher as a minor leaguer, so his major league performance¬†is unlikely to improve dramatically. He has one start this season to hang his hat on, against the Rockies in April when he went seven innings and gave up just one run, but the Cubs in this series finale is a tough draw. The bullpen is likely to be depleted following Tuesday’s mystery spot start, so Stephenson will be relied upon to just get through as many innings as he can. Stephenson comes with just three pitches — a fastball, change, and curve. And like Sampson, he uses the fastball very heavily. He gets it up at around 94 mph, so it’s a formidable pitch in that regard, but opposing hitters have a .279 ISO against it and put that pitch in play for more often than his others.

Lackey has not replicated his 2015 season in most ways, but he has found some ways to go so far as to improve upon last year. His K/9 is up from 7.22 to 8.83, for instance. And, perhaps as an indicator of the difference in defensive strength behind him this year, opposing hitters have seen their BABIP drop by over 40 points from what it was in 2015 with the Cardinals. Unlike Hammel and Lester, Lackey did pitch against the Reds in July, and it did not go particularly well. He threw six innings but gave up five earned runs on five walks and six hits. He didn’t pitch all that much better against the Reds in April, either.

What to Watch For:

It’s okay to admit that the offense looked a little flat for three of the four games against the Brewers. Friday is the exception, but this can be somewhat forgiven with the reality of where this team is at this point in mind. They’ve officially clinched, and yes, while they are still playing for home field advantage, that race isn’t all that close. Even after stumbling against the Brewers, the Cubs still have six more wins than the Nationals. So perhaps there’s a bit of a division championship hangover coupled with the pressing understanding that the heavy lifting is coming soon. After such a consistently dominant and successful season, slogging through the final two weeks is a challenge, even against weaker teams. So while the pitching matchups are about as favorable as they could be, Cubs fans still might be forgiven for some clenched teeth about the struggles of the offense to produce more runs of late.

Health. Just no stupid injuries at this point. The Jorge Soler early exit on Friday has spooked us all a bit, but thankfully that doesn’t look all that serious. Even still, envelop¬†these guys in bubble wrap until October 7, please.

Game times and Broadcast Info

All times CST

It’s a three game serving of night games. With both teams off on Thursday and the Reds only traveling to Milwaukee from here, there’s no need for the traditional “getaway day” on Wednesday. So all three games have 7:05 starts, but CSN is carrying the first two and WGN has the Wednesday finale. All three games can be heard on 670 AM as well.

Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.

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