This preview was jointly written by Zack Moser and Nate Greabe.
If I were to tell you that the Cubs were merely playing out the string in their final series versus the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds, you would be forgiven for thinking that something had gone horribly wrong. As it is, the Cubs’ weekend series versus St. Louis, their final series of the regular season at Wrigley Field, was an anticlimax. Their upcoming series in Pittsburgh—before the season, an exciting few days on the calendar, with a presumptive division title in play—is an epilogue to a story already completed. The Cubs will align their starting pitchers for the Division Series and rest their regulars, while the Pirates stare down an insurmountable 4.5 game deficit in the Wild Card. So, sit back and enjoy a meaningless September series; this time it’s fun!
Monday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Chad Kuhl
Perhaps the most exciting storyline for the Cubs this final week is the awards on the horizon for their stars. On Monday, Kyle Hendricks takes the hill for the last time in his phenomenal 2016 campaign, looking to solidify his Cy Young case. His 3.50 DRA belies his excellence: a gaping league lead in ERA (2.06), a minuscule .212 TAv allowed, a good 23.1 percent strikeout percentage, and only two starts of 28 in which he’s allowed four earned runs (and not once has he allowed more). Since the beginning of August, Hendricks sports a 1.44 ERA, a shutout, and 58 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings.
The Birth of the Kuhl (2016) has been fairly pedestrian. His strikeout and walk rates are neither exceptional nor disastrous. In his twelve starts, he’s averaged about five innings. His fastball has some serious sink and lives in the low 90s, and the Cubs kill fastballs—Kuhl’s other pitches are merely serviceable, so he might have trouble with the Cubs’ bats.
Tuesday: John Lackey vs. Ryan Vogelsong
Although he hasn’t soared as high as Hendricks over the same time, Lackey has also pitched very well over the past two months. In his last eight starts, he’s allowed four runs only once, and has thrown fewer than six full innings only once. Lackey’s 2016 ERA is his second best since 2007, when he led the AL with a 3.01 and finished third in Cy Young voting. This could be his last start for a few weeks—he likely won’t get a Division Series start, with Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jake Arrieta lined up.
Like Kuhl, Vogelsong has made a dozen starts for the Bucs. Unlike Kuhl, the 39-year-old Vogelsong is on the waning portion of his career spectrum. One would be hard pressed to find inspiration in his 5.11 DRA or commensurate 4.85 ERA, and it’s possible that Vogelsong hangs up his cleats after this season. Since returning to the rotation for the Pirates in August, Vogelsong has struck out fewer than seven and walked almost four per nine, completing six innings only three times in ten starts. He hasn’t made it out of the fifth since his August 31 start against these Cubs, and even then this lineup touched him up for five runs.
Wednesday: Jake Arrieta vs. Jaimeson Taillon
The marquee matchup of the week features a possibly ascendant Jake Arrieta. The righty tossed seven strong innings of no-run ball against the Cardinals last week, and his mechanics—out of whack for much of the season—looked to align more with those upon which he built his success. He won’t be pressed to throw too many pitches, considering the proximity to the playoffs, but one hopes Arrieta will make it into the seventh and look good doing it.
Taillon has been solid in 17 starts for the Pirates this year, and the shoulder fatigue that led to his midseason DL-stint seem to be long past. Save a late-August start in Milwaukee, in which Taillon gave up five runs in three innings, the righty has been remarkably consistent. He’s walked very few this year, so the Cubs’ patience might not lead to bases on balls.
Thursday: Rob Zastryzny vs. Ivan Nova
Joe Maddon forgot about Zastryzny for nearly the whole month of September. Maybe he just never got that far down on the lineup card before he made his call to the ‘pen; maybe Ben Zobrist is the only Z-Man for him. Either way, Zastryzny receives his first Cubs start. In 12 1/3 innings, he’s allowed only two runs, ten hits, and three walks, replete with a high groundball rate. For Zastryzny, who likely won’t make the postseason roster, it’s the season’s final hurrah.
Since coming over from the Yankees, Ivan Nova has been surprisingly good. His 3.19 ERA in 59 1/3 innings is partially a product of a tiny walk rate, about three percent lower than his career mark. His strikeout rate, WHIP, and BABIP are all in line with his career numbers, so it’s to be seen if Nova can sustain his success. He’s looking for a sizable contract this offseason, so this might be his last Pirates start.
What to Watch for
The Cubs played the Cardinals series “straight.” They played all their positional starters, pitched their bullpen guys in their regular roles, and cemented their status as the class of the NL Central. Do not look for them to do the same in this series. The focus over the next week will be on aligning everything perfectly for a playoff run, and so these games themselves might feel a little bit beside the point. But baseball is still being played, and there is still much to watch for if you, like me, enjoy watching baseball for fun.
– Watch for Kyle Hendricks, and enjoy the fact that a total nerd is a viable Cy Young contender.
– Watch for Jake Arrieta to follow up on his dazzling performance on Friday. He’s reunited with Miguel Montero, so let’s hope that their chemistry will help Arrieta regain some of the magic he found towards the end of last year.
– Watch for Jorge Soler, and hope that he looks healthy at the plate. He carried the Cubs through the NLDS last year, and it would be fantastic to see him at 100% in the playoffs.
– Watch for Rob Zastryzny’s first MLB start. He was drafted and brought through the minors as a starter, so it will be fun to watch him do what he’s been training to do for his whole life. He will be the first Epstein-drafted pitcher to come through the system and make a start for the Cubs. He also hasn’t pitched much in September, so, if you’re reading the tea leaves, this might be the last time we see him until next spring.
– Watch for some wacky lineups. Matt Szczur leading off? Sure! David Ross batting fifth? Why not?! Munesori Kawasaki in the two hole? Maybe! Joe Maddon likes to have some fun when he can, and this is certainly a prime opportunity.
– Watch for Kris Bryant to pick up his 100th RBI. This is not a stat we’d usually advise that you pay (any) close attention to, but, hey, it would be kind of a bummer if he finished with 99 in two consecutive seasons. This single extra RBI will also, unfortunately, make him even more attractive as an MVP candidate.
– Speaking of round numbers, the Cubs will likely win their 100th game in Pittsburgh. It doesn’t actually mean any more than number 99, but it sounds nice, and the achievement solidifies all that the Cubs have accomplished this year, and, really, over the past five years. You should take a minute and enjoy that, because it’s special, and it doesn’t happen very often. No matter what happens in the playoffs, this is a special Cubs team, and it was the best in baseball all season long.
– Watch for baseball, which is a beautiful and emotional game that doesn’t last year-round. The Cubs are only guaranteed ten more games this year, so enjoy the fact that while nothing lasts forever, any single baseball game just might.
All four games are 7:05 CDT starts. The first three will be on Comcast SportsNet, locally, and the final game of the series is on WGN. All four games, as always, will be radio broadcast on 670 AM.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.