On The Horizon: Cubs vs. Pirates Series Preview

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs take to the road once more for an extended trip, starting out with a four-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So close, yet so far away... regardless, a 5-1 homestand is still extremely impressive. Here's hoping the road trip can continue the good fortune.

After several big outings from the Cub bullpen, the wheels finally came off as Brian Schlitter and Pedro Strop both blew leads on Sunday on the way to a 4-3 loss in the series finale against the Miami Marlins. With the loss in the finale, the Cubs' record moves to 25-35, but the 5-1 homestand moves them up to third from the bottom in the major leagues. The Philadelphia Phillies (25-36) are one-half game behind, while the Tampa Bay Rays (24-40) sit three games back.

The Cubs now take to the road again for another 10-game trip, beginning with a journey through the Keystone State that starts with a four-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pittsburgh comes into the series with a 29-33 record, a far cry from a year ago when they were 37-25 at this point in the season. As you may recall, the Cubs started the 2014 season in Pittsburgh and went 1-2 in that series; both of the losses were in extra innings at the hands of Carlos Villanueva. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself in that regard.

LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:

Monday - Edwin Jackson (4-5, 4.59 ERA, 1.456 WHIP) vs. Charlie Morton (2-7, 3.31 ERA, 1.282 WHIP)
Tuesday - Travis Wood (5-5, 5.04 ERA, 1.407 WHIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (1-6, 4.54 ERA, 1.471 WHIP)
Wednesday - Jason Hammel (6-3, 2.53 ERA, 0.881 WHIP) vs. Brandon Cumpton (1-2, 6.51 ERA, 1.554 WHIP)
Thursday - Jeff Samardzija (2-5, 2,54 ERA, 1.129 WHIP) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-5, 4.27 ERA, 1.172 WHIP)

What used to be a source of strength for the Pirates has turned into one of their biggest liabilities this year; Pittsburgh's rotation has the third-worst ERA in the National League at 4.47 and the fourth-worst WHIP at 1.362. To make matters worse for them, they will be without the services of Gerrit Cole (3.62 ERA, 1.304 WHIP) who just went on the disabled list with right shoulder fatigue.

The bullpen (16-7 record, 2.92 ERA, 1.233 WHIP) sports a couple of tough customers including closer Mark Melancon (2.17 ERA, 0.828 WHIP) and southpaw Tony Watson (0.96 ERA, 1.071 WHIP), but it also features a few relievers that have WHIPs upward of 1.400. If the Cubs can get to the Pirates' bullpen early in this series, it will probably work to their benefit.

THE OFFENSE:

The Pirates offense features four starters whose OPS is currently at or above .750:

Just as in 2013, McCutchen continues to lead the way for Pittsburgh, but this time around the supporting cast is a bit stronger. It does still have some gaps, though, including a slumping Starling Marte (.230 AVG, .659 OPS) and Jordy Mercer (.228 AVG, .588 OPS), and because of these gaps the offense as a whole ranks mid-pack in the National League in runs per game and OPS. They are, however, second in the league in OBP at .328 and third in the league in walks at 202.

For the Cubs, the over-.750 club has once again shrunk to two members as Starlin Castro stands just outside the door at .745. The series against Miami helped Anthony Rizzo, who now stands at .893, while Luis Valbuena continues his strong season at .815. Nate Schierholtz continues to make his climb from badness to mediocrity, raising his OPS to .597. Whether or not he can actually make it all the way to mediocre remains to be seen.

GAME PROJECTIONS:

Game 1: Fun fact about Morton: He currently leads all of baseball with 13 hit batters in just over 73 innings. He plunked 16 batters last year as well. Hopefully someone will remember to tell the Cubs to put on an extra layer of padding for this game. Morton also has not made it out of the sixth inning in any of his last three starts; then again, neither has Jackson. Basically, flip a coin.

Game 2: It's the battle of the lefties in this matchup. The magic has certainly worn off for Liriano this year and, similar to Morton, he has not made it out of the sixth inning in any of his last four starts. On top of that, the Pirates have not been successful this year against lefty starters (.229 average, .610 OPS), so this should be a good opportunity for Wood to rebound from a couple of subpar starts.

Game 3: Well, this one is pretty lopsided on paper. It bears noting, though, that most of Cumpton's ERA woes came from a 11-run shellacking he took at the hands of the Dodgers back on May 31, posting the ever-dreaded negative game score of -3. That takes some work, folks. Hammel, on the other hand, has not given up a run in either of his last two starts. Put it all together and it means the Cubs will probably get pounded because of the baseball gods attempting to return all things to an average state.

Game 4: And once again, it looks like the best pitching matchup in the series will come in the final game of it. Volquez has put up a string of average starts most of the season with his game score maxing out at 64 against Washington on May 22. He's been victimized by the longball, though, allowing 11 homers in just under 72 innings. Hopefully Shark will be able to build on the good start that he had against Miami in his last outing.

RUSS' PREDICTION: 2-2. The pitching should get the Cubs at least two wins here, but I think the offense will find a way to keep it from being any more than that.

NEXT STOP: The road trip continues as the Cubs head across the state for their final three games of the year against the Philadelphia Phillies.

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