Well, I guess if you're going to win one game in a five-game series, make it the last one and do it with some style. Oh, and some solid performances from the prospects.
After an 11-game road trip that started and ended well (we won't talk about the middle of it), the Cubs return home for the final three games before the All-Star break to take on the Atlanta Braves. This will be the final time the Cubs play Atlanta this year, and hopefully this series will go better than the last one; it'd be hard for it to be worse as the Cubs were swept at Turner Field in early May.
The Cubs come into the series with a record of 39-52, once again coming perilously close to the cellar in the National League but still ahead of the Colorado Rockies (39-53) and Arizona Diamondbacks (39-54). Atlanta, on the other hand, has a record of 50-42, tied with the Washington Nationals for the lead in the NL East and only 1½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers (52-41) for the best record in the National League. This parity thing is kind of interesting, wouldn't you say? The Cubs were 1-2 against Atlanta last year at Wrigley Field and have a 5-8 record against them at home since 2010.
LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:
Friday: Alex Wood (6-7, 3.14 ERA, 1.183 WHIP) vs. Jake Arrieta (5-1, 1.78 ERA, 1.019 WHIP)
Saturday: Mike Minor (2-5, 4.54 ERA, 1.448 WHIP) vs. Edwin Jackson (5-9, 5.05 ERA, 1.525 WHIP)
Sunday: Julio Teheran (8-6, 2.57 ERA, 1.028 WHIP) vs. Travis Wood (7-7, 4.64 ERA, 1.481 WHIP)
This will be the first time that the Cubs will be facing Minor this season, and also the first time they will be facing Wood as a starter; he was pitching out of the bullpen the last time the teams met and moved back to the rotation in late June after a season-ending elbow injury to Gavin Floyd. You probably don't want to remember the Cubs' last game against Teheran, but just in case you do, the Cubs managed all of one hit over eight innings against him in Atlanta May 9.
As for the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel (2.04 ERA, 0.934 WHIP) is still Craig Kimbrel, striking out batters at will (61 in 36⅔ innings) and newcomer Shae Simmons (1.06 ERA, 0.941 WHIP) has also made a large impact, allowing only three runs in 19 appearances since his Major League debut on May 31. Four of the Braves' top relievers (Kimbrel, Simmons, Jordan Walden, David Hale) have a WHIP of 0.913 or less in the last two weeks and have allowed a total of two runs over 24⅓ innings. That's the bad news for the Cubs.
And now, for the good news...
The Braves offense features only two starters whose OPS is currently at or above .750:
Notably absent from this list is catcher Evan Gattis (.900 OPS). Gattis is on the disabled list with a back injury. He is currently working through rehab and is expected to return sometime after the All-Star break. His absence is definitely a blow for a team that has a difficult time scoring runs; they are currently next-to-last in the National League in runs per game at 3.67. They have been hitting better over the last two weeks, however, posting a .275 average and a .703 OPS over that time span. Second baseman Tommy LaStella has been leading the charge, hitting 15-for-42 with eight walks for a .471 OBP and .971 OPS. The same can not be said for Jason Heyward, who is 10-for-47 with a .523 OPS.
Believe it or not, but the over-.750 club for the Cubs now currently has five members. Chris Coghlan turned an impressive 15-for-40 road trip into a club membership at .751, the same OPS as Luis Valbuena who unfortunately is trending in the wrong direction after a 5-for-38 performance on the road. All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro sit at .892 and .774, with Justin Ruggiano rounding out the quintet at .807. The hot hand for the Cubs currently belongs to John Baker (yes, you read that correctly) who is 8-for-15 with seven walks in his last six games, bringing his average from .160 to .211 and his OPS from .404 to .549. If he keeps this up, he'll find himself out of the Four Horsemen in a hurry.
Game 1: Wood (Alex, that is) has done very well in his three starts since returning to the rotation on June 25, with his worst outing being a six-inning, three-run affair against the Mets. Arrieta's performance since the beginning of June bears repeating: seven starts, 45⅓ innings, 25 hits, 53 strikeouts, 0.99 ERA, .406 OPS against. This should definitely be the pitchers' duel of the series.
Game 2: Minor had a pretty strong start to the season with a 3.07 ERA through his first seven starts, but his last six have not been nearly as good, allowing 24 runs and 47 hits in 33⅓ innings for a 6.48 ERA and a .942 OPS against. He has also allowed eight home runs over those six starts. As for Jackson, it's not much better over his last six starts: 23 runs, 39 hits, 6.00 ERA, .886 OPS against. The safe bet for Jackson: somewhere less than six innings and four runs. But you already knew that.
Game 3: If there's a silver lining, it's that Teheran got knocked around pretty good in his last start against the Mets, giving up 11 hits and five runs in only 3⅓ innings. Aside from that, there aren't many blemishes on his record. Wood (Travis, that is) hasn't had a particularly good outing since his start at Philadelphia on June 15, coughing up a lot of baserunners and not getting too deep in the games since then.
RUSS' PREDICTION: 1-2. The game today should be winnable, and the Saturday game should have a glint of promise, even if faint. But there's no way I'm going to call two wins.
NEXT STOP: After taking a break to watch the All-Star performances of Rizzo and Castro, the Cubs head to Arizona for three games to finish their season series against the Diamondbacks.