On The Horizon: Cubs vs. Braves Series Preview

If he's in the game, we're probably in trouble. - Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

In the game that would seemingly never end, the Cubs avoided a Crosstown sweep against the White Sox and continue their nine-game road trip with their annual stop in Atlanta.

Hey, how about that! The Cubs can score runs against a starter they've never faced before!

The Cubs got offense from -- well, everywhere -- Thursday night and managed to salvage one win in the Crosstown Classic, taking the final game against the White Sox 12-5. As you read in the recap, Al just loved the brisk four-hour pace of this game in which somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand pitches were thrown (actually, 359) and five batters were plunked. The Cubs' record now stands at 12-21 and they'll make a bleary-eyed trip to Atlanta, continuing their nine-game road trip with a three-game set against the Braves.

Atlanta enters this series with a record of 18-15.  They have only won one game in their last nine, and that was a 2-1 squeaker in their last series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs were 1-5 against the Braves in 2013 and got swept at Turner Field in the process.

(Melancholy music starts here.)

LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:

Friday - Jason Hammel (4-1, 2.43 ERA, 0.811 WHIP) vs. Julio Teheran (2-2, 1.80 ERA, 0.880 WHIP)
Saturday - Jeff Samardzija (0-3, 1.62 ERA, 1.120 WHIP) vs. Ervin Santana (3-0, 2.41 ERA, 1.040 WHIP)
Sunday - Edwin Jackson (2-2, 4.57 ERA, 1.452 WHIP) vs. Alex Wood (2-5, 3.00 ERA, 1.178 WHIP)

In the words of Sam Beckett:  "Oh, boy."

The Braves' starting pitching is near the top of the National League in several pitching categories (second in ERA, second in WHIP, third in strikeouts, second in runs allowed), and the Cubs will be facing two of their best in this series. The two starters that the Cubs will not face are the rejuvenated Aaron Harang (2.98 ERA, 1.157 WHIP) and the recently-returned Mike Minor (6.97 ERA, 1.935 WHIP). Santana is listed as probable for the Saturday start; he has been nursing a bruised thumb and missed his last start against St. Louis.

If the Braves get to the late innings with the lead, you can pretty much forget it. Closer Craig Kimbrel has struck out 26 batters in 12⅓ innings and has a ludicrous FIP of 0.34. The rest of the bullpen is dangerous as well, except for their lone lefty Luis Avilan (6.10 ERA, 2.032 WHIP). Basically, score early or go home.

THE OFFENSE:

The Braves' offense features three players whose OPS is currently at or above .750:

And therein lies the problem with the Braves. Other than the three guys you see listed above, they can't buy a run right now. They are currently scoring 3.18 runs per game, second-worst in the National League.  Jason Heyward is currently sporting a .605 OPS in right field; B.J. Upton is managing only a .624 OPS in center; and then there's Dan Uggla, the black hole at second base (.184 AVG, .513 OPS). Then again, we know all too well about black holes at second base, don't we, Darwin Barney (.408 OPS)?

So, do you remember that time the Cubs had a bunch of guys who were over the .750 OPS mark? Yeah, not so much anymore. It's back down to Anthony Rizzo at .926 and Starlin Castro at .761. Welington Castillo is just under at .748 thanks to a 1-for-20 slump. (Special mention goes out to Emilio Bonifacio with a .358 OBP and Luis Valbuena at .354.) Coming into the final game against the Sox, the Cubs were the second-worst hitting team in the NL at .225 and second-worst in OBP at .292. The 15-hit, six-walk, four-beanball outburst on Thursday certainly will help those numbers out a bit.

GAME PROJECTIONS:

Basically, this series comes down to whose offense will wake up long enough to put some runs on the board. Hammel had his worst start of the year in his last outing, and while it wasn't horrible, he's going to need to do better than that against Teheran if the Cubs want any chance at the first game. As for the second game... at some point, Shark's going to have to get some run support. Isn't he? Then again, with the way Santana's been pitching, it still might not happen this time around. And then there's the final game, with everyone's favorite, Mr. Jackson. Given that he had two starts in 2013 with a game score over 70, I'm not counting on him to repeat his performance from his last outing, no matter how badly the Braves' offense may be struggling.

RUSS' PREDICTION: Man, I've been trying like crazy to figure out where the win is going to come from in this series, and I'm having a heck of a time finding it. But I'm going to say that somehow (and I'm honestly not sure how) the Cubs will take one of the first two games and walk out of Atlanta 1-2. If the Braves' bats were doing anything at all, I'd probably have this penciled in as an 0-3 trip.

NEXT STOP: The road trip comes to a merciful end as the Cubs make another stop in St. Louis for a four-game set with the Cardinals. Maybe they can beat Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha again. (Seriously, I've gotta stop drinking so much Kool-Aid when I write these things.)

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