Once again, what a difference a few days makes. Or a week, in this case.
One week ago there were thoughts (maybe even hopes) of the Cubs finishing with a draft pick outside of the protected group thanks to a sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers to put them at 64-76. One week later they sit at 64-82, dropping them back into sixth in the reverse standings and putting their hopes of breaking out of the protected group in serious doubt as they sit 5½ games behind the Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds (70-77) for the first unprotected spot. As for the Pirates, they went from trailing the Brewers and Atlanta Braves by 1½ games for the second Wild Card spot to leading the Brewers by 1½ and the Braves by two. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller: "Life moves pretty fast."
After last week's sweep, the Cubs are 4-12 against the Pirates this year. They are 2-5 at PNC Park.
LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:
Friday: Tsuyoshi Wada (4-2, 2.95 ERA, 1.091 WHIP) vs. Gerrit Cole (8-5, 3.89 ERA, 1.306 WHIP)
Saturday: Felix Doubront (1-1, 2.25 ERA, 1.250 WHIP) vs. Jeff Locke (7-4, 3.60 ERA, 1.217 WHIP)
Sunday: Jacob Turner (1-2, 5.31 ERA, 1.328 WHIP) vs. Edinson Volquez (11-7, 3.36 ERA, 1.264 WHIP)
Well, at least the Cubs don't have to face Francisco Liriano again, so there's that. This will be the third time that the Cubs will be facing Volquez this year, but only the second as a starter; he pitched two innings in relief on April 3 in the opening series of the year between the two teams. The Cubs lost 4-0 in Volquez' start on June 12 in which he allowed seven hits and two walks over seven innings. The last time that the Cubs saw Locke was exactly one year ago on September 12, 2013; he gave up three hits and a walk in a 3-1 win for the Pirates. And just to make matters even better: The Cubs have not won either of the games this year that Cole started, losing 5-4 on April 10 and 10-4 last week.
No changes to the over-.750 list for the Pirates, with each player's OPS from last week in parentheses:
- Andrew McCutchen, CF, .940 (.926)
- Josh Harrison, 3B, .855 (.849)
- Russell Martin, C, .828 (.823)
- Neil Walker, 2B, .808 (.803)
- Starling Marte, LF, .804 (.775)
Marte was hit by a pitch in Pittsburgh's 4-1 win over Philadelphia on Thursday and left the game later with a sore hand; from reports over at Bucs Dugout the injury doesn't appear to be serious. Rookie Gregory Polanco (.655 OPS) finished the game for Marte. Oh, and in case you missed it: the picture above is McCutchen flying around the bases as he hit an inside-the-park home run on Wednesday in the Pirates' 6-3 win over the Phillies. Gotta love those crazy bounces.
The list on the Cubs' side (with last two weeks in parentheses):
- Jorge Soler, 1.101 (1.017)
- Anthony Rizzo, .889 (No games in past two weeks)
- Luis Valbuena, .773 (.994)
- Chris Coghlan, .768 (.700)
- Logan Watkins, .766 (.773)
The six-game skid has taken quite the toll on the offense, with the Cubs hitting .209 with a .550 OPS during the slide. The best performances during the slide go to Welington Castillo (.375 / .912) and Chris Valaika (.400 / .904), but aside from that there hasn't been a lot to cheer about. I've added Rizzo back in just in case he returns for this series, and hopefully he will because Watkins seems to be working his way out the door pretty quickly.
Game 1: The Cubs did manage to get nine hits off of Cole over six innings in his last outing, so if Wada can manage to not give up seven runs in 1⅔ innings of work (hi, Travis Wood!) maybe there's a chance here. Wada left his last start against the Pirates early with cramping in his left calf; hopefully he won't be suffering any effects from that.
Game 2: Aside from his rough outing against St. Louis at the beginning of September, Locke has done very well in his last five starts, allowing a total of four runs in the other four and posting three game scores of 63 or better. Doubront's last start against the Pirates wasn't bad, allowing five hits and two runs over five innings. With any luck the Cubs will give him a run or two of support this time around.
Game 3: Volquez has also been a tough customer as of late, posting game scores of 51 or better in six of his last seven starts and 70 or better in three of those. His worst game score in that period was 40, thanks to 11 hits given up against Milwaukee, but he only allowed two runs in the process. He's also been tougher to hit at home, with a .233 average and .643 OPS against at PNC Park. As for Turner, he has alternated good starts and bad through his first three, so maybe the pattern continues and this one will be good. Because that's how small sample sizes work, you know.
RUSS' PREDICTION: You know what, I'm going to make a call that I have not made so far this season: 0-3. Pittsburgh is a much tougher team at home (44-28) than they are on the road (33-41), and the opposite is true for the Cubs (29-46 road, 35-36 home). With the Brewers playing Cincinnati this weekend and the Braves playing the (egads) Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh has all the motivation they need to try and sweep another one. Hey, the worst that could happen is that I end up right, and given my track record with that as of late, I don't think there's too much to worry about.
NEXT STOP: It's time for the final homestand of the 2014 season, starting out with three games against the Reds. At least it's a break from teams with playoff hopes.