The weather is finally warming up in Chicago, yet the Cubs seem to have finally cooled off a bit.
After dropping Monday’s series opener against the Cardinals, the Cubs had lost eight of their last 12 games. The Cubs were starting to come back to Earth for the first time all year.
But after back-to-back wins to close the series with St. Louis, the Cubs have a chance to continue to right the ship when they welcome the Philadelphia Phillies to town this weekend. On paper, the Phillies may be the biggest anomaly in baseball. They’re five games above .500 and sit just a couple of games behind the Nationals in the NL west. That has many baseball fans scratching their heads. Heading into Wednesday’s action, only six MLB teams had a worse run differential than their -34, so how are they winning ball games?
Diving deeper into the offensive statistics will only leave you more confused. The Phillies rank 29th in runs scored and rank near the bottom of the league in ever major offensive category. Ryan Howard, the team’s long-feared slugger and cornerstone of their lineup, is having an atrocious season. He’s hitting .159 and is striking out on more than a third of his plate appearances.
3B Maikel Franco, who looked like a budding young star in 2015, is struggling at the plate. In the 80 games he played last year, his slash line was .280/.343/.497 — his 2016 slash line is not nearly as good (.254/.299/.444). Franco is supposed to be a key member of the Phillies offensive rebuild. His struggles at the dish may be due to the fact that he’s unprotected in the weak Phillies’ lineup, teams are pitching around him and forcing him to swing at pitches he shouldn’t.
OF Odubel Herrera may be the team’s only offensive bright spot. Baseball fans should learn his name, the 24-year-old Venezuelan is hitting .329/.441/.447 — that’s outstanding for a leadoff hitter. Herrera has improved greatly in his second year, especially with his selectivity at the plate. He’s walked more times (32) in his first 45 games this season than he walked in the 147 games he played in 2015.
It’s clear that the Phillies rebuild is going significantly slower for the offense than it is on the mound. The team’s young pitching staff has been very good — they rank 9th in team ERA. Their bullpen has also been very reliable in the early going . The team is 14-4 in games decided by just one run, and they have more one-run wins than any other ball club.
David Hernandez (2.42 ERA) and Hector Neris (1.38 ERA) have become a stellar 7th-8th inning combo. Jeanmar Gomez has stepped into a closing role for the first time in his seven year career and is pitching lights out. He’s saved 16 games in 17 opportunities.
The Cubs will see three of the team’s young starting pitchers this weekend.
Adam Morgan will pitch the series opener. Formerly one of the hottest prospects in the Phillies farm-system, Morgan has struggled at times since having a shoulder surgery two years ago. He’s a control guy who needs to keep the ball down in the zone in order to succeed. If he doesn’t spot his low 90’s fastball well, he could struggle getting through the Cubs highly touted lineup.
Jerad Eickhoff is expected to take the bump in Saturday’s game. CSN Philly’s beat reporter Jim Salisbury said in a phone interview, “When he has his curveball working, it’s like everything is right in the world for him.” Eickhoff is coming off of a start where he threw seven innings of shutout baseball against the Braves. His (2-6) record is poor, but the 25-year-old is trending upwards after not allowing more than three earned runs in any of his last five starts.
Vincent Velasquez will take the hill for Sunday’s matinee game and final matchup of the series. The 23-year-old is off to a hot start — he’s (5-1) on the year with a 2.75 ERA. “He loves to throw his fastball (95+ MPH), but he gets proud of it at times,” Salisbury said. “He needs to continue to work in his off-speed stuff so he doesn’t get predictable.” Velasquez is a true competitor, he’s fiery and clearly loves to play the game. He should be a lot of fun to watch on Sunday.
I think the Cubs have a great chance to bring out the brooms this weekend and take all three games from the Phillies. With Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey pitching for the Cubs, I can’t see the Phillies scoring enough runs to stay in games late. Velasquez will pose a significant challenge to the Cubs, but he hasn’t had to pitch against a lineup this tough in his young career.
If the Cubs can continue to hit the way they did in the Cardinals series, they shouldn’t have a problem taking down the Phillies. The biggest key for the Cubs will be scoring runs early on in games — if they trail late, it will be tough to come back against the Phillies’ stingy bullpen.
This weekend gives the Cubs a chance to keep momentum alive heading into a more difficult series with the Dodgers.
Kevin McCarthy, a junior at the University of Illinois, is serving an internship at Scout.com this summer and covering the Cubs for NorthSidersReport. You can follow him at @KevOMcCarthy on Twitter or contact him by e-mail at Kevin.McCarthy00@yahoo.com