Pittsburgh Pirates Face Cubs For First Time Since W.C. Game

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Cubs come to  face the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first time since last season’s Wild Card Game. Read on for a preview of the series:

Cubs Record: 17-6 (1st in NL Central)

Last Series Result: Split 2 games with the Atlanta Braves with a 3rd game postponed

The Chicago Cubs were anointed as the team to beat in Major League Baseball coming into 2016 by the media at large. A breakout 2015 season that saw them reach the NLCS combined with some splash signings in the offseason contributed to this. They have lived up to those expectations thus far with a 17-6 record through the first month and a day of the season that has them sitting atop the NL Central with the best record in baseball. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates are only 3 games back and, though it is unlikely, a sweep would put them in a tie for first place.

The Cubs have dominated opposing lineups with their pitching through the beginning of the season. Their pitching staff currently boasts the second lowest ERA (2.41), the lowest WHIP (0.98), tied for the second fewest walks issued (58), and the fewest innings pitched by relievers (55). The pitching staff makes up for an offense that, while above average, is not nearly the most dominating in baseball. The team is currently slashing .251/.359/.421 as a team (13th/2nd/10th in MLB) with the high OBP thanks to an MLB-leading 124 walks (the Pirates are currently 2nd with 110).

Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite their fantastic start, the Cubs were dealt a blow when Left Fielder Kyle Schwarber was lost for the season with a torn ACL on April 7, the Cubs third game of the season. Jorge Soler and Szczur have handled Left Field duties in his absence. The Cubs other outfielders are main offseason pickup Jason Heyward in Right Field, and Dexter Fowler in Center Field. We’ll have more on Fowler below. Heyward is off to a bit of a slow start to the season, slashing .211/.317/.256 with no Home Runs yet.

The Cubs infield is incredibly strong, with 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant manning 3rd Base and fellow sophomore Addison Russell taking Shortstop duties. Ben Zobrist, another major offseason pickup is the everyday Second Baseman and Anthony Rizzo and his team-leading 8 Home Runs handles First Base. The Catcher position is handled by a platoon of Left-handed hitting Miguel Montero and Right-handed hitting David Ross. This is good news for the Pirates, sending two Right-handed pitchers to the mound in this series, as Ross currently has much better stats than Montero so far on the season (.267/.351/.500 for Ross vs. .208/.316/.333 for Montero).

Pitching Matchups

Game 1 – May 2, 7:05 P.M. ET

Gerrit Cole (R) (2-2) vs. Jason Hammel (R) (3-0)

Game 2 – May 3, 7:05 P.M. ET

Jon Niese (L) (3-0) vs. Jake Arrieta (R) (5-0)

Game 3 – May 4, 12:35 P.M. ET

Juan Nicasio (R) (3-2) vs. Jon Lester (L) (2-1)

Gerrit Cole takes the mound in the series opener, facing the Cubs for the first time since the NL Wild Card Game last season. Cole has looked good for the most part this season, but we have yet to see him turn in a dominating start that he delivered for much of the season last year. Jon Niese takes the mound, still undefeated despite giving up over 2 Home Runs per 9 innings pitched (2.22). Juan Nicasio takes the mound in the finale and looks to repeat his dominating performance that he turned in last Friday against the Reds.

Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports /

Jason Hammel will start for the Cubs in the series opener. Thus far Hammel has been the ace of the staff for the 2016 Cubs. While his 0.75 ERA is due to revert to a more normal rate, he still boasts and impressive 2.48 FIP, though that too is much lower than his career average. 2015 NL Cy Young winner and Pirates villain Jake Arrieta will pitch the second game. Arrieta has picked up right where he left off after his breakout 2015. He has yet to be tagged for a loss and he already has a No-hitter in 2016. Jon Lester pitches the series finale for the Cubs. Lester, like the rest of the Cubs starters has looked impressive with a 1.83 ERA, though that should begin to rise due to a more average 3.27 FIP and a low BABIP (.250).

Recent Meetings

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

I shouldn’t need to remind anyone of the last time these two teams met. It was the forgettable NL Wild Card Game to open last season’s playoffs. Jake Arrieta pitched a complete game and the Cubs won 4-0. Before that however was the now infamous takeout slide by Chris Coghlan (now with the Oakland Athletics) that fractured Jung Ho Kang’s knee, from which he still has not returned to Major League action. Nearly as infamous, at least to Pirates’ fans, were Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s insensitive and imbecilic comment of Kang suffering from Plantar Fasciitis, a common and less serious ailment that is caused by stresses over a long-term, not a violent collision. Needless to say the events of the latter part of the 2015 season led to the Cubs to pass the Cardinals as the most hated team in Major League Baseball among the majority Pirates’ fans, myself included.

Overall last season, the Pirates went 8-11 against the Cubs in the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs. They were outscored 81-71 over those 19 regular season games and 4-0 in the playoff game.

Cubs Player to Watch: Dexter Fowler

Cubs Center Fielder Dexter Fowler is off to a sizzling start. Through the first month of the season he is slashing .350/.470/.613. He also has 3 Home Runs on the season. Needless to say he will not continue to hit at such an impressive rate, but until he comes down to earth he is an incredibly dangerous player to face. Right now he has a BABIP of .431, so it is definitely a question of when, not if, he will begin to hit more in line with his career .269/.365/.423 slashline.

More from Rum Bunter

While the majority of the responsibility for the Cubs’ great start rests with the pitching, Fowler plays a key role as well. Given how hot Fowler has been and how generally average the rest of the everyday lineup has been, much of the Cubs offense runs through him. It will be the mission of Pirates pitchers to keep him reigned in somewhat.

Pirates Keys to Victory

Take Advantage of Opportunities

I say some variation of this fairly often, but it is incredibly important in this series. With the Cubs dominant pitching, run-scoring opportunities will likely be few and far between. Working in the Pirates favor is of course their hot start from the plate this season across the board and the fact that they’ve started to hit a few more Home Runs. Despite this, I wouldn’t expect the Pirates to score a ton of runs, so they need to make the most of their opportunities.

Quality Starts

Related to the above key, the Pirates will need to get good starts from their rotation. The dominance of the Cubs pitching means the Pirates will likely need to win some low-scoring ballgames. In order to do this, the Pirates pitching needs to match that of the Cubs for the Pirates to have a chance.

Keep Fowler Quiet

The Pirates pitching can help themselves out by keeping Dexter Fowler quiet in this series. While the Cubs have other batters that are very good, Fowler is off to a fantastic start. The Cubs just don’t have the top to bottom depth that the Pirates lineup does though. If Fowler can be kept quiet, it may be hard for the Cubs to string together hits and score a lot of runs.

Series Prediction

I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. These two teams are pretty evenly matched and will likely be battling for the NL Central crown into September. Right now though, the Cubs are off to a fantastic start thanks to their dominant pitching. In the end, I just think the Cubs’ pitching will get the better overall of the Pirates’ bats and the Cubs’ bats will do enough to give the Cubs a series win and put them at least 4 games up in the division.

Prediction: Cubs 2-1