Series Preview: Cubs vs Cardinals, September 23-25

The search for meaning in the meaningless. It is the human condition and the fate that observers of this Cubs team have found themselves in for weeks. Now the Cubs playing a meaningless final series against the Cardinals in September is hardly unfamiliar, but the only drama for the Cubs being the chance to win 100 games at Wrigley Field is. The Cubs will have a very motivated opponent as the Cardinals are in a dead heat with the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets for the two wildcard spots. There is an argument to be made that the Cardinals represent the best round one opponent for the Cubs, but a series sweep would be a nice step to balance the scales a bit between these two franchises. Okay it probably would not even come close to moving those scales, but it would still feel good to help end the Cardinals season by October 3.

Probable Pitchers

Friday: Jake Arrieta vs. Mike Leake
Jake has looked very mortal recently and that has moved him from being the clear game 1 starter at the start of the season to the potential game 3 starter. The command has not been good as evidenced by 11.2 percent walk percentage in his last 4 starts or the 4 home runs given up in 23 2/3 innings during that stretch. His fastball velocity has been trending downward over the course of the season, but there has been no dramatic drop with the sinker average velocity holding above 94 mph. Jake’s pitch usage has remained fairly consistent throughout the year. There has been a slight uptick in changes at the expense of four seam fastballs in September. The change has been an effective whiff pitch for Arrieta and so the increase makes sense.

Mike Leake has had a tough first season in St. Louis. The ERA remains above 5 despite his slowly improving September. The Cardinals inning eater started the month by giving up 3 runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Cardinals. The Cubs took a whack at him five days later and managed three earned runs over 6 innings. Five days after that Leake pitched another quality start against the Giants with 2 earned runs over six innings. Leake’s velocity remains down this month with his fastball sitting at 91 mph, but his pitch selection remains largely the same as he throws the sinker well over 40 percent of the time.

Saturday: Jason Hammel vs. Alex Reyes
September has been a rough month for Jason Hammel in 2016. He has an ERA of 6.87. The only other month he has an ERA over 4 is July’s 5.33. There are some interesting statistical similarities in the two months. His strikeout rate during those two months are the highest of the season with his K percent over 24 in those two months. His walk rates are also among the lowest, and as a result he has posted the highest K-BB% of 2016 this month at 18.1%. The reason the ERA spiked is that the gopher ball becomes a major problem for Hammel. His HR/9 is 2.67 and 2.45 in July and September. The .353 BABIP in September doesn’t help either, but teams are hitting an astounding 41.1 percent of balls for hard contact in the month. Hammel’s only shot at a playoff rotation spot was injury, but now it is becoming harder to justify rolling the dice on Jason Hammel reliever.

The Cubs get another chance to solve Alex Reyes. The flamethrowing righty has mystified the Cubs in his 7 1/3 innings of work against the team. The Cubs were able to make him work in his last appearance at Wrigley. Cubs hitters drew six walks, but could manage only one hit against the big rookie. The fastball comes in at an average of 98 mph and Reyes mixes it up with a good change up. That combination his been tough on a number of the young Cubs hitters, but they will have a chance to crack it once again on Saturday afternoon.

Sunday: Jon Lester vs. Carlos Martinez
Jon Lester is nine innings away from going over the 200 inning mark for the eighth time in the past nine years. It is doubtful he will do that Sunday night, but the presumptive game 1 starter is on the best roll of his Cubs career right now. Since July 29, Jon Lester has thrown 68 2/3 innings. He has allowed eight runs while walking 12 and striking out 66 batters. He has dramatically upped his sinker usage in the past two months. He was using the pitch in the single digit percentage points for three months prior to jumping up to 11.3 percent in August and 21.5 percent in September. The increase in sinkers first came with a decrease in cutters and now a drop in four seam fastballs. The velocity has tailed off slightly in September, but the command has made up for any dip in stuff.

The rotation has been a weak point for the St. Louis club most of the season, but Carlos Martinez has been a steady contributor nearly matching his 2015 breakout season. The season started rocky for him, with his ERA at 4.25 after his first nine starts, but since then he has posted a 3.01 ERA. Martinez has added a curveball to his arsenal. The pitch is used infrequently but is a new tool to act left handed hitters who have done well against Martinez historical and this season. Martinez’s velocity dipped in the month of August, but it has jumped back up to his historic levels in his recent outings.

What to Watch for
The Cubs will activate Pedro Strop on Friday. That returns the Cubs to as full strength as they could be expected to be for the postseason. Watching him and Hector Rondon round back into form is one of the few compelling storylines left this year. That is something that will dramatically affect the Cubs postseason chances. The three headed monster at the back end of the bullpen at full strength is just unfair to the opposition. Hopefully the Cardinals will be able to witness that a couple times this weekend.

The other point of interest for the playoff push is how Joe Maddon finds time for various players. The battle for playing time at the catcher spot has had many twist and turns through the course of the second half. Miguel Montero appears to have reestablished himself as a viable option as the starting catcher. Chris Coghlan and Tommy La Stella playing time will be interesting to watch. Coghlan and La Stella have made the most of their limited playing time with the Cubs this year, and the final call on the playoff roster is going to be tough.

Broadcast Channels, Game Times

All start times are Central Standard Time
The Cubs start the series Friday at 1:20 on ABC WLS, and play the second game Saturday at 12:05 on Fox. The series and regular season Wrigley Field finale will be the Sunday night game on ESPN and will start at 7:08.

Lead photo courtesy Ron Chenoy—USA Today Sports.

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