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On the Horizon: Cubs vs. Rays Series Preview

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The Cubs begin a seven-game homestand with three games of interleague play against the Tampa Bay Rays.

It's not easy trying to replace David Price.
It's not easy trying to replace David Price.
Jason O. Watson

If you had made a wager with me at the beginning of this past road trip that the Cubs would have finished it with more than three wins, you'd have a lot of my BCB points right now. How many points that would actually be is subject to question; it's hard to get records on how many BCB points are actually held by anyone at any given point in time. But regardless, I'd have a much smaller percentage than before.

After taking two games out of three in Colorado against the Rockies and winning a series there for the first time in 10 years (!), the Cubs head back to Wrigley for what is likely to be a challenging seven-game homestand, starting out with three games against the Tampa Bay Rays. You may recall that at one point in the season Tampa Bay was the worst team in baseball with a record that bottomed out at 24-42 after 66 games. Since that time they have gone 31-17, including winning streaks of five and nine games, to bring their record to 55-59. As for the Cubs, their record currently stands at 49-64 and they have moved back in front of the Arizona Diamondbacks (49-66) on the National League standings ladder. The last time that the Rays played at Wrigley Field was in 2003, with the Cubs winning two games out of three in that series. The Cubs' overall record against Tampa Bay is 2-4, though, courtesy of being on the wrong end of a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field in 2008.

LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:

Friday: Chris Archer (7-6, 3.42 ERA, 1.314 WHIP) vs. Tsuyoshi Wada (1-1, 3.32 ERA, 1.338 WHIP)
Saturday: Jake Odorizzi (7-9, 4.09 ERA, 1.346 WHIP) vs. Edwin Jackson (6-11, 5.66 ERA, 1.568 WHIP)
Sunday: Alex Cobb (7-6, 3.52 ERA, 1.202 WHIP) vs. Travis Wood (7-9, 5.08 ERA, 1.541 WHIP)

Pitching has been a strong suit for Tampa Bay, as usual; they currently rank fourth in the American League in ERA (3.65) and WHIP (1.250), and they are second in the AL in FIP (3.61) behind only the Seattle Mariners. Of course, a significant portion of that strength was due to the success of David Price (3.11 ERA, 1.043 WHIP) who was traded to the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline, with Drew Smyly (3.98 ERA, 1.364 WHIP) coming back as part of the deal. Their bullpen is very solid at the top end, with southpaw closer Jake McGee (1.44 ERA, 0.820 WHIP) leading the way and righty Brad Boxberger (2.00 ERA, 0.822 WHIP) striking out a crazy 14.2 runners per nine innings, third-best in the American League.

THE OFFENSE:

The Rays offense features three starters whose OPS is at or above .750:

  • Kevin Kiermaier, RF, .858
  • Ben Zobrist, LF, .789
  • Matt Joyce, DH, .777

A lot of the Rays' success in the second half can be attributed to a surge in their offense; since the All-Star break, they are third in the American League in batting average (.278) and OPS (.745), with the surge led by Zobrist who is hitting .333 with a .961 OPS in 17 games since the break. One major area of weakness for the Rays -- which is also something the Cubs know all too well -- is the ability to hit in the clutch, specifically with the bases loaded.  Tampa Bay is tied for the AL lead in plate appearances with runners at every station (119), and they are dead last in the AL in both batting average (.223) and OPS (.550) in that scenario.

The list on the Cubs' side (with last two weeks in parentheses):

  • Anthony Rizzo, .890 (.644)
  • Chris Coghlan, .870 (1.125)
  • Luis Valbuena, .767 (1.022)
  • Starlin Castro, .758 (.705)

For the Cubs, it's back down to four members as Justin Ruggiano drops out of the club; his 2-for-10 performance at Colorado dropped his OPS to .744, leaving him as the guy with his nose against the window. Coghlan is in hot pursuit of Rizzo for the team lead, thanks to a 9-for-20 road trip with five extra-base hits and four walks.

Oh, and Javier Baez is at 1.215. Not that you were wondering or anything.

GAME PROJECTIONS:

Game 1: Archer has been pretty consistent since the All-Star break; in each of his last three starts, he has pitched at least six innings, allowed six hits and two walks, and given up three runs. It's like someone made a copy of his start and just keeps replaying it every five games. Wada has had one good and one okay start since his clunker against San Diego on July 23. Hopefully he can put together another good start in what should be the best pitching matchup of the series.

Game 2: Prior to his last outing against the Angels, Odorizzi had nine straight starts in which he allowed three runs or less. The Angels roughed him up for five runs in only three innings, which was his worst outing since probably the end of May at Boston. As for Jackson... well, since the end of May he has been good for one good start out of six, and given that he had that good start last time out against Los Angeles, it probably won't be until September that we see another good one. (I'm such an optimist.)

Game 3: The Sunday matchup doesn't look any easier; in fact, it's probably worse. Cobb hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his last six starts and he struck out 10 and 12 in late July against St. Louis and Milwaukee. Wood finally recorded a quality start in his last outing at Colorado, his first since June 26 against Washington. He's probably going to need to do more than that for the Cubs to have a chance in this one, though.

RUSS' PREDICTION: If nothing else, it should be a really fun series with Baez making his Wrigley Field debut. However, I don't think it's going to be one that the Cubs win, at least not with the pitching matchups here. So, back to 1-2 I go.

NEXT STOP: The homestand comes to a close with another tough four-game set against the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. Time to start playing the spoiler.