As Aerosmith once sang, it was the same old story, same old song and dance on Wednesday night, as Edwin Jackson did what he does best -- pitch five innings and change and give up four runs -- as the Cubs lost the rubber game of the series 4-1 against the Cincinnati Reds. The loss brings the Cubs' record to 32-44, and they are once again second from the bottom in the National League standings, 1½ games ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks (33-48).
The 10-game homestand comes to a conclusion this weekend with the Cubs playing their first four games of the year against the Washington Nationals. Washington comes into this series with a record of 41-36, leading the NL East by one game over the Atlanta Braves. They have won four games out of their last five, including two out of three in their last series against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs are 11-16 against the Nationals since 2010 and are 5-8 at Wrigley Field in that span, losing three out of four at home last year.
LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:
Thursday: Doug Fister (6-2, 2.65 ERA, 1.040 WHIP) vs. Travis Wood (7-6, 4.55 ERA, 1.371 WHIP)
Friday: Tanner Roark (7-4, 2.79 ERA, 1.110 WHIP) vs. Jason Hammel (6-5, 2.99 ERA, 1.017 WHIP)
Saturday, Game 1: Gio Gonzalez (4-4, 4.38 ERA, 1.346 WHIP) vs. Dallas Beeler (MLB debut)
Saturday, Game 2: Jordan Zimmermann (5-4, 2.95 ERA, 1.177 WHIP) vs. Jeff Samardzija (2-6, 2.53 ERA, 1.194 WHIP)
The matchups for the Thursday and Friday games are close to certain, and as of the date and time of this article, those are the expected Saturday matchups, which would have Zimmermann going on three days' rest. The Cubs announced Wednesday that Beeler, who was added to the 40-man roster after a solid performance in the Arizona Fall League, will be added to the roster (via the 26th-man rule for doubleheaders) to make the start in Saturday's afternoon game, with Samardzija going in the nightcap on normal rest.
The Nationals' bullpen can be summed up in one word: Nasty. And not in a good way for the Cubs. They lead the National League in ERA (2.36) and are third in WHIP (1.153) and OPS against (.600). Closer Rafael Soriano (1.13 ERA, 0.844 WHIP) has only allowed a run in three out of 32 appearances, and he's backed up by equally-as-tough Drew Storen (1.07 ERA, 0.789 WHIP) and Craig Stammen (2.52 ERA, 0.941 WHIP). The Pirates' bullpen should look like a walk in the park compared to these guys. About the only chance for the Cubs is to get to the earlier part of the pen -- and even then things don't get much better -- and given that Washington is second in the league in runs allowed per game (3.45), odds are that the Nationals' middle relievers won't need to see a lot of action.
The Nationals offense features two starters whose OPS is currently at or above .750:
Even though there are only two Nationals starters above .750, they have four others who are over .700, so there's not too much room for rejoicing. Washington is currently scoring 4.04 runs per game, right at the league average, and they are also near the league average in OBP (.313 vs. .312 NL average) and OPS (.692 vs. .699 NL average). Bryce Harper (.773 OPS) is currently on a rehab assignment at High-A Potomac; he is not expected back for this series, but the Cubs will most likely see him when the teams meet again next week.
The homestand continues to go poorly for Luis Valbuena, who went 1-for-7 against the Reds to bring his seven-game total to 2-for-20, dropping his OPS to .782. Despite the 0-for-4 night on Wednesday, Anthony Rizzo currently sits at a lofty .923 with Starlin Castro nearly unchanged at .812. It would be nice if the Cubs could ever get another regular over .700 again, but for now Justin Ruggiano remains best of the rest at .697.
Game 1: I'm not going to sugarcoat this one; this game just looks like a loss. Fister has allowed two runs or fewer in seven of his last eight starts, posting game scores of 61 or better in six of them. Wood's going to have to find that magic he had against Philadelphia on June 15, because without it I'm having a very hard time seeing how the Cubs walk away with the series opener.
Game 2: It doesn't get much easier in this game, as Roark has been just as good as Fister, if not better. He has not allowed more than three runs in nine consecutive starts dating back to May 3 when he coughed up seven against Philadelphia. The question becomes which version of Hammel will show up on Friday. His last two starts at home against Pittsburgh and Miami were both very good, but his road starts against those same two teams were not nearly as good.
Games 3 and 4: Gonzalez has gotten roughed up in three of his last four starts, but pitched six shutout innings in his last outing at Milwaukee. There isn't really any way of knowing how Beeler will do in his major-league debut, though it's worth noting that teams sometimes have trouble against pitchers they've never faced before. Zimmermann, even on short rest, will be a tough foe for Samardzija. Zimmermann hasn't thrown over 100 pitches in a start since June 8.
RUSS' PREDICTION: 1-3. Just too many tough pitching matchups in this series, and with the offense continuing to be anemic outside of Rizzo and Castro, that just reeks of disaster.
NEXT STOP: The Cubs head back out on the road for 11 games, starting with their first trip to Fenway Park since 2011 as they play a three-game set against the Boston Red Sox.