Well, that was a nice change of pace. But how long can they make it last?...
The Cubs used the textbook definition of a strong performance -- take the lead early and let your pitching finish the job -- to take two games in the three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, including a 4-2 victory in the series finale. The series win was the second of the season for the Cubs and the first since the beginning of the month when they took two out of three from the St. Louis Cardinals. With the series win, the Cubs' record stands at 15-27, still last in all of baseball but keeping pace with the Houston Astros.
The five-game homestand concludes with the Cubs' second and final two-game set against the New York Yankees. New York comes into this series with a record of 23-20 and a half-game lead in the AL East over the Baltimore Orioles. In case you missed the first two games between the Cubs and the Yankees, they didn't go too well... actually, that's putting it much too nicely. The Cubs basically were blanked for two games. The last time the two teams met at Wrigley -- which was in 2011- - New York took two games out of three.
LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:
Tuesday - Jason Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA, 0.906 WHIP) vs. Masahiro Tanaka (6-0, 2.17 ERA, 0.914 WHIP)
Wednesday - Jeff Samardzija (0-4, 1.62 ERA, 1.115 WHIP) vs. Chase Whitley (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.857 WHIP)
With the day off on Monday, the Cubs are shuffling the rotation a bit, putting their two best pitchers up in this series and moving Jake Arrieta to the next set against San Diego. Given the opposition, they're going to need everything they have. Tanaka threw a two-hit gem over eight innings in his first start against the Cubs; he struck out 10 in that start. Whitley will be making his second major-league start in place of the injured CC Sabathia; he was 3-2 with a 2.39 ERA and 1.025 WHIP at Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre.
In the Yankees' pen, closer David Robertson (1.54 ERA, 0.600 WHIP) has been rock-solid, allowing only five hits in 11 2/3 innings while striking out 15. He is a perfect 8-for-8 in save opportunities on the season. Righty Dellin Betances (1.85 ERA, 0.945 WHIP) has also been mowing opponents down, whiffing 42 batters in just over 24 innings. If the Cubs can get to the deeper part of the Yanks' pen, their chances will get somewhat better, especially given New York's lack of a decent lefty (Matt Thornton, 5.87 ERA, 1.696 WHIP). But just like the previous series, the need to score early is magnified.
The Yankees offense features four starters whose OPS is currently at or above .750:
- Mark Teixeira, 1B, .919
- Yangervis Solarte, 3B, .887
- Brett Gardner, LF, .789
- Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, .756
There are definitely plenty of threats here and not many weaknesses; New York is second in the AL in batting average and fifth in OPS. The notable absence in this series will be Carlos Beltran (.715 OPS) who is on the 15-day DL with a bone spur in his right elbow. The low man on the Yankees' OPS chart is catcher Brian McCann at .635. That number would look really good in a couple of positions for the Cubs.
As for the Cubs, the over-.750 OPS club has risen back to four members, with Junior Lake (.763) joining perpetual band members Anthony Rizzo (.850) and Starlin Castro (.832) as well as guest musician Luis Valbuena (.771). Despite the performances at the top, the team as a whole is still struggling on offense, ranking no better than 12th in any of the slash categories (AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS). You already know where the weak links are - Darwin Barney and Nate Schierholtz say hello and promise they'll try to do better -- and with Hammel on the mound in this series, that probably means that John Baker and his .205 OPS will get another chance to swing fruitlessly against Tanaka. I'm sure he can't wait for the opportunity to look helpless yet again.
The best thing about this series is that the pitching matchups should be great. However, getting a win out of the matchups is going to be pretty tough. If the Cubs want to take the first game, they're going to have to do something that no one else has done so far this year, and that's figure out how to beat Tanaka. Hammel's last start was his worst of the year and he's been rocky in two of his last three.
As for the second game... well, we all know the Cubs' amazing ability to make new starters look like aces, so that has the potential to bode very badly. However, they did pound Scott Carroll from the White Sox earlier in the year. I honestly don't know what it will take for Shark to finally get a win; all I know is that the winless streak can't last forever given how well he's done to this point.
RUSS' PREDICTION: 1-1. The second game seems to be the logical choice.
NEXT STOP: The Cubs end the month of May with a 10-game road trip including their first journey to the West Coast, with the first stop being in San Diego to face the Padres. Make sure to have plenty of caffeine on hand for the weekend, as three of those games start at 9:10 p.m. CT.