When the Pirates and Cubs got together three weeks ago, they were two teams headed in completely different directions. The series sweep made the Pirates losers of nine of their last ten games and dropped them to 14 games back of the Cubs for the lead in the NL Central.
Things have changed.
The Cubs are ice-cold, the Pirates are red-hot. The Cubs are 5-13 since these two teams got together, while the Bucs are 11-6 over that same stretch and are currently riding a seven game win streak.
For the first time all season, the Pirates are getting consistent success from their starting pitchers. Since July began, their team ERA is 2.62, which is good for third in the bigs. The Cubs team ERA this month is 7.76, which ranks last in all of the bigs. That stat is very surprising for a team that has had the most dominant rotation in baseball all season long.
Here’s what the Cubs staff will be up against this weekend.
The toughest part of the Pirates lineup is their star-laden outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte. Interestingly enough, the most prominent player of those three, McCutchen, has struggled this season. The former National League MVP is hitting just .241/.315/.406 — each slash number is well-below his career average (.293/.383/.489). Nonetheless, the Cubs shouldn’t sleep on him. He’s been a Cub-killer throughout his career, his OPS is .925 in 121 career games against the north siders.
Polanco and Marte have both had breakout seasons for Pittsburgh. We knew both youngsters were skilled defensively and fast on the base paths — but, this season, both have come alive at the plate. The 22-year-old Polanco is batting .291/.367/.510 with 12 homers and 50 runs driven in. He’s 3rd amongst NL outfielders in WAR, trailing only Bryce Harper and Marcell Ozuna. That’s pretty good company.
Marte ranks sixth in WAR amongst NL outfielders. He’s become a huge threat offensively, hitting .318/.362/.467. But, his greatest attribute is his speed, he ranks second in the big leagues with 25 stolen bases. Only the Brewers’ Jonathan Villar has stolen more bases (28).
Another surprise in the Pirates lineup has been the production from David Freese in his first year with the team. He’s hitting .296/.374/.473 and has provided extra protection in the lineup for the likes of Marte, Polanco and McCutchen.
Overall, this is a very good offense. They rank third in the bigs in on-base percentage. Their problem has been manufacturing runs (they rank 14th in the league in runs scored).
Starting pitching has been the biggest issue for the Pirates all season long. Their ace, Gerrit Cole, has been on the disabled list since June 11 after straining his triceps on his pitching arm. That injury and a lack of depth in the rotation contribute to the Pirates 20th ranked staff-ERA.
Francisco Liriano is slated to pitched against Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta on Friday night. Liriano has struggled this season, he’s 5-8 with a 5.34 ERA. He’s been bad against the Cubs in two starts this season, he’s 0-2 with a 10.45 ERA. The lefty relies primarily on his sinker-ball and hard slider to get hitters out.
23-year-old Chad Kuhl will start Saturday’s game against Jon Lester. Kuhl was called up from Triple-A Indianapolis two weeks ago and has been solid in his first two big league starts. He went six innings, allowing just two runs against Oakland over the weekend. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but relies on keeping his sinking fastball low in the zone to induce ground balls.
Jonathan Niese is expected to pitch against John Lackey in Sunday’s series finale, which is also both teams last game before the All-Star break. In his first season with the club, Neise has struggled to stay consistent. He’s a command and control guy who mixes his pitches very well. He has a five-pitch repertoire, but relies most heavily on his four-seam, sinker and cutter.
The Cubs have owned the Pirates the last two seasons. Dating back to last season, the Cubs are 19-9 against them and 8-1 this season.
That being said, and despite the fact that the Cubs are pitching their one-two-three starters, this will be a very tough series for them to win. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are coming off of poor starts, the offense has been cold and the bullpen continues to be the team’s Achilles heel. The Pirates are seeing the north siders at just the right time, and they know just how crucial this series will be if they want to contend for a division crown.
I’ll take the surging Pirates over the struggling Cubs, two out of three. Then, finally — a break for the Cubs. Well, I guess I should say it’s a break for two-thirds of the team.
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