Pittsburgh Pirates Look to Slow Chicago Down Cubs

Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Pittsburgh Pirates finish their current road trip with a weekend trip to Wrigley Field to seek revenge on the Chicago Cubs who swept them in Pittsburgh the last time they met. Read on for a preview of the series:

Cubs Record: 25-8 (1st in NL Central)
Last Series Result: Dropped 2 of 3 to the San Diego Padres

Probable Pitching Matchups
Game 1 – May 13, 2:20 P.M. ET
Francisco Liriano (L) (3-1) vs. Jason Hammel (R) (4-0)

Game 2 – May 14, 2:20 P.M. ET
Jeff Locke (L) (1-2) vs. Jake Arrieta (R) (6-0)

Game 3 – May 15, 2:20 P.M. ET
Gerrit Cole (R) (3-3) vs. Jon Lester (L) (4-1)

When last we saw the Chicago Cubs they were pummeling the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs dominated a three game series by not only sweeping it, but winning each game comfortably. For the Cubs, that was the beginning of an 8 game winning streak that ended on Wednesday. In addition to their manhandling of the Pirates, the Cubs swept the Washington Nationals in 4 games as part of that streak. The Cubs suffered their first major disappointment of the season though when they lost both games of a doubleheader to the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, which not only saw the end of their streak, but gave them their first series loss of the season. It was also the first time this season that the Cubs lost back-to-back games.

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

Needless to say, the Cubs have gotten off to a ridiculously good start to the season. Even though the general consensus was that the Cubs would be the team to beat in the NL Central, even the National League overall, and maybe even all of baseball, I don’t think many would have predicted them to get off to a start this well. As I wrote last time these two teams met, a big reason the Cubs have gotten off to such a hot start thanks to their excellent pitching. They currently have the lowest team ERA (2.67), opponent Batting Average (.202), and WHIP (1.04) in all of Major League Baseball.

Leading their pitching staff is of course defending NL Cy Young winner and Pirate fans’ Public Enemy Number One: Jake Arrieta. Arrieta has picked up right where he left off, going 6-0 in his first 7 starts with a 1.13 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP. But the rotation doesn’t just rely on Arrieta, with Jason Hammel and Jon Lester also off to fantastic starts, with both sporting ERA’s under 2.00 (1.85 and 1.96 respectively). However, it should be expected that these will raise quite a bit over the rest of the season as three have FIP’s much higher than their ERA’s and at more average levels (Arrieta: 2.79, Hammel: 3.23, Lester: 3.39). The Pittsburgh Pirates will have to hope the regression comes sooner rather than later because they have the pleasure of facing all three this weekend.

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

The Cubs of course also have a potent offensive attack, as would be expected from a team that’s won over three-quarters of their games. They currently are slashing .262/.368/.432 (9th/1st/8th in MLB). Their league-leading OBP is thanks to their 172 walks, which also lead all of baseball. From an individual standpoint, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist are leading the way for the Cubs’ offense with slashlines of .333/.458/.553 and .309/.432/.491 respectively. 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant is having no sophomore slump this season as he is currently slashing .285/.367/.477 with 10 doubles and 5 Home Runs.

Leading the Cubs with the long ball is Anthony Rizzo with 10 Home Runs, which is tied for fourth most in Major League Baseball. Not everyone on the Cubs is having a stellar season from the plate though as this past offseason’s big pickup, Jason Heyward has been a relative disappointment slashing .216/.321/.259 with no Home Runs yet this season.

Recent Meetings
As mentioned above, the Chicago Cubs swept the Pittsburgh Pirates when these two met earlier this month. The Cubs won the 3 games by the scores of 7-2, 7-1, and 6-2. The less that is said about these games the better, but if you insist on more details, check out my recap of the series.

Cubs Player to Watch: Tommy La Stella
While the majority of the Cubs roster is probably somewhat familiar to Pirate fans, Tommy La Stella may be something of an unknown commodity. Only in his third Major League season, and second with the Cubs, La Stella came up through the Braves organization and spent is rookie season in 2014 in Atlanta. During the ensuing offseason he came to the Cubs in a trade and made their Opening Day roster. Unfortunately for La Stella he missed most of the season with an oblique injury, but did return for the Cubs’ playoff run and even got the start in the Wild Card Game against the Pirates.

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

La Stella has mainly played the role of first infielder off the bench, similar to the role Sean Rodriguez has played for the Pirates this season. In this role, La Stella has excelled thus far, slashing .346/.424/.615 with 2 Home Runs in 59 Plate Appearances. While La Stella’s stats will likely normalize over the season, it may not be by too much as his BABIP, while higher than average, is not exactly stratospheric at .356. Look for La Stella to come in as a pinch hitter and likely make at least one start this weekend.

Pirates Keys to Victory
Aces Pitch Like Aces
Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole are seemingly pitching better lately, at least compared to their slow starts in April. If the Pittsburgh Pirates want to have any hope of beating the Cubs, they need to pitch like aces and match the likely good performances that Chicago’s trio of great starters will likely produce.

Take Advantage of Opportunities at the Plate

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

The Pirates were unlucky in their last series with the Cubs only going 2 for 19 with runners in scoring position over the 3 games. If the Pirates are going to win, they need to take advantage of the likely few opportunities that they will have to get runs.

Get Lucky
Related to that, the Pittsburgh Pirates could do with some good luck in this series. Baseball is a fickle game and a few fortunate bounces can mean the difference between stealing a series victory at Wrigley Field or getting swept again. Luck tends to even out, so even though the Pirates can’t control it, maybe it will smile upon them after it ignored them last time they played the Cubs.

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. The Cubs, despite dropping both games in their doubleheader with the Padres, remain a machine firing on all cylinders. However, they have also been very lucky and their winning percentage will likely soon fall to levels that are more based in reality. Call me optimistic or say I’m going out on a limb, but with the Pirates being well rested from the rain out and the day off this week and the return of Jung Ho Kang, I’m feeling good about this series for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Prediction: Pirates 2-1

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

*Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, mlb.com, and espn.com