This is what we've been waiting for, right? Meaningful baseball in August. (And, hopefully, continuing to be meaningful into September, and October.)
The Pirates have been the hottest team in baseball over the last two and a half months. They lost to the Twins May 20 to fall to 18-22 -- the Cubs were 4½ games ahead of them on that date. Since then they are 43-21, the best record in baseball (and it's not close; second-best is the Yankees, 37-26, 5½ games behind). The Cubs have held their own in that span, going 35-30, but the Pirates' run includes going 17-9 in both June and July and winning streaks of five, seven and eight.
Maybe this is coming to an end. The not-so-great Reds managed to split a four-game series with the Pirates over the weekend, not to mention the bench-clearing incident that happened Sunday after some traded hit-by-pitch events.
The Cubs are 6-4 against the Pirates so far this year. The teams split a four-game set at PNC Park in April, the Cubs winning the first two and then losing the next two. Three of the four games were decided by one run. Both teams are near the top of this year's list in one-run affairs; the Cubs (tied with the Cardinals) lead with 41 one-run games (24-17) and the Pirates are fifth with 36 (22-14). Thus I'd expect these games to be tight ones, and don't forget these teams will meet six more times in September, one series each at PNC and Wrigley.
Bring it on. We've been waiting at least six years for August games that meant something.
Monday: Jon Lester (6-8, 3.26 ERA, 1.168 WHIP, 2.92 FIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (7-6, 2.92 ERA, 1.061 WHIP, 2.94 FIP)
Tuesday: Jake Arrieta (11-6, 2.62 ERA, 1.017 WHIP, 2.61 FIP) vs. J.A. Happ (4-6, 4.64 ERA, 1.408 WHIP, 4.06 FIP with Mariners)
Wednesday: Dan Haren (7-7, 3.42 ERA, 1.093 WHIP, 4.58 FIP with Marlins) vs. Jeff Locke (6-6, 4.21 ERA, 1.421 WHIP, 3.74 FIP)
The pitching matchups, at the very least, are pretty much even. The Cubs miss Gerrit Cole in this series, and though Francisco Liriano has been very tough on the Cubs since he came to the Pirates (2.17 ERA in nine starts), at least he's matching up with Lester, who had a fantastic July (1.66 ERA in six starts). The Cubs should have the advantage Tuesday with Arrieta over Happ, and Haren might have an advantage over Locke, as the Pirates have not faced him this year.
Tentatively, and with some risk, I'm going to say the Cubs will win this series two games to one. Even that will only gain them one game in the standings against the Pirates, who they trail by four games entering this series.