What a difference a few days makes. Before the games on Monday the Pittsburgh Pirates were 71-65, two games behind both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the chase for the division and the second Wild Card spot. Fast forward to the present and the Pirates find themselves at 71-68, 5½ games back in the division and fighting both the Brewers and the Atlanta Braves for the second Wild Card spot, trailing both of them by 1½ games.
As for the Cubs? They're at 64-76, still sitting in third in the National League reverse standings and eighth overall. But more than that, they are only two games behind the Cincinnati Reds (66-74) for the fourth-place spot in the division and a draft pick outside of the top 10. The winds of change or something like that.
This series will be the fifth between the Cubs and Pirates this year, with the last one to come beginning one week from today. The Cubs are 4-9 against Pittsburgh this year and 2-4 against them at Wrigley Field.
LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:
Friday: Vance Worley (6-4, 3.01 ERA, 1.223 WHIP) vs. Tsuyoshi Wada (4-2, 2.79 ERA, 1.084 WHIP)
Saturday: Francisco Liriano (3-10, 3.91 ERA, 1.332 WHIP) vs. Felix Doubront (1-0, 1.29 ERA, 1.143 WHIP)
Sunday: Gerrit Cole (7-5, 3.86 ERA, 1.295 WHIP) vs. Travis Wood (8-11, 4.81 ERA, 1.497 WHIP)
The Cubs have faced each of these pitchers at least once this season and they are 1-3 in those matchups, with the lone win coming against Liriano on June 10. Cole will be making his fourth start since coming back from the disabled list in late August. He missed about eight starts between July 4 and August 20 with a strained right lat. Maybe Edwin Jackson can share stories with him.
The Pirates offense features five starters whose OPS is at or above .750:
- Andrew McCutchen, CF, .926
- Josh Harrison, 3B, .849
- Russell Martin, C, .823
- Neil Walker, 2B, .803
- Starling Marte, LF, .775
While they haven't been hitting that well over the past two weeks -- their .248 batting average is 10th in the National League -- they have been hitting for power quite well, with the third-most home runs in the NL (19) and the fifth-best OPS (.746). Harrison has been leading the way with a .353 average and 1.032 OPS in that time frame, logging nine extra-base hits in his past 12 games.
The list on the Cubs' side (with last two weeks in parentheses):
- Jorge Soler, 1.500 (1.500)
- Logan Watkins, .966 (1.000)
- Chris Coghlan, .788 (.775)
- Luis Valbuena, .775 (1.025)
This is the first time this season that the list has not included Anthony Rizzo, but with the injury to his back and the uncertainty as to when he will return, he has been taken off of the list for now. The same is true for Starlin Castro with his high ankle sprain. Fret not, though, because with Soler and Watkins both being close to 30 plate appearances and looking like they'll be playing most of the time from here on out, they have been offered invitations to the club, which is a good thing because having only Coghlan and Valbuena running the show would have seemed a bit... off. Between the four of them they'll have to decipher the manual that Rizzo wrote about keeping the club running.
Game 1: Worley has been a pretty solid addition to the Pirate rotation since he joined it on June 15, posting eight starts with a game score of 55 or better. He did go through a bit of a bumpy stretch in August, though, allowing four runs or more in three consecutive starts. Wada's last start at St. Louis was his worst since his outing against San Diego on July 23 but he has been very good at Wrigley, allowing two runs or less in five of his six starts at home.
Game 2: Liriano has been the hard-luck member of the Pirate rotation. He has put up game scores of 60 or better in eight of his last nine starts, allowing two runs or less in each of them, and he has two wins to show for it. He allowed eight runs over five starts in the month of August and the Pirates lost all five games, four of them in one-run fashion. Doubront's first start as a Cub was everything you could hope for, allowing only one run in seven innings. Hopefully he'll duplicate that effort again in this game.
Game 3: Cole has had two good starts and one that was not as good since returning from his lat injury. He allowed two runs against both Atlanta and St. Louis but gave up five in his second time facing the Cardinals. I'm still not sure which Wood is going to show up from game to game; this will be his fourth time facing the Pirates this year and he has had game scores of 66, 45, and 44 in his three outings against them. Probably time to flip the coin again.
RUSS' PREDICTION: I'm almost at the point where I'm worried about what would happen if I predicted the Cubs to win a series. They've done pretty well lately when I've predicted them to lose and not as well when I've predicted them to win. But I'll take the gamble and go with 2-1.
NEXT STOP: The Cubs head out on the road for the second-to-last time this year and start the trip with their final interleague games of the year against the surging Toronto Blue Jays.