Cardinals and Cubs round 2 – A big weekend

The St. Louis Cardinals sit atop the National League Central Division in the midst of a six-game winning streak. This weekend they host the Chicago Cubs in a three-game series which may set the tone for the rest of the year.

The St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs opened the 2017 season in Busch Stadium. St. Louis held a 3-0 lead going into the top of the ninth only to allow the defending World Series champions to tie the score on a Willson Contreras three-run home run. The Cardinals won the game 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth thanks to a Randal Grichuk RBI single. Grichuk had also given St. Louis the 3-0 lead with a two-run home run in the eighth inning.

Chicago won the other two games in the opening series by scores of 2-1 and 6-4 behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lackey. Those two losses were part of the Cardinals’ 3-9 start to the regular season against the Cubs, Reds, Nationals and Yankees. Since then, St. Louis has gone 16-5 and now sits in first place, a half game ahead of Cincinnati, two games ahead of Milwaukee and 2.5 games in front of the Cubs.

After this three-game series in St. Louis, the Cards and the Cubs play three times in Chicago in three-game series in June, July and September before returning to St. Louis for a four-game series in the next-to-last series of the year. If the Cardinals are going to compete for the Central Division title in 2017 they must hold their own in head-to-head games with the Cubs.

The Pitching Matchups

The weekend series starts tonight with surprising Mike Leake (4-1, 1.79 ERA) on the mound for St. Louis and Eddie Butler for Chicago. Butler is filling in for Brett Anderson. He was recalled from Triple-A Iowa where he has a 1.17 ERA. The Cubs got Butler from the Rockies after Colorado designated the former first rounder for assignment. The Cubs sent relief prospect James Farris to the Rockies in return. In his career in Colorado, Butler threw 159.1 innings in 36 appearances (28 starts) with a 6-16 record, 6.50 ERA, 94 strikeouts and 70 walks.

Carlos Martinez  (2-3, 3.86 ERA) will take the hill for St. Louis on Saturday and Adam Wainwright (2-3, 6.37 ERA) will pitch on Sunday. The Cubs will counter with John Lester (1-1, 3.27 ERA) on Saturday and Jake Arrieta (4-2, 5.35 ERA) on Sunday.

At the Plate

Jedd Gyorko (.351 BA, 6 HR, 17 RBI, 1.045 OPS) leads the Cardinals’ hitters into this important series. Matt Carpenter (.267 BA, 7 HR, 22 RBI, .424 OBP) has also begun to swing a hot bat.

The Cubs on the other hand come into the series having lost five of six games. Manager Joe Maddon blames their recent struggles on “sleep deprivation” and an awkward schedule. Chicago is finding out how difficult it is to repeat.

On the field the Cubs are sluggish because their leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber is hitting .195 with an OBP of .325. Only three starters are batting over .250 while Addison Russell (.227 BA, 2 HR, 15 RBI, .652 OPS), Ben Zobrist (.222 BA, 3 HR, 13 RBI, .698 OPS), Anthony Rizzo (.218 BA, 6 HR, 19 RBI, .740 OPS) and Willson Contreras (.216 BA, 2 HR, 13 RBI, .630 OPS) are all hitting below .230.

The good news for Chicago coming into St. Louis is that Anthony Rizzo has a career batting average against Mike Leake of .375 with four doubles, two home runs and nine RBI. Anything to get someone to help Kris Bryant (.299 BA, 7 HR, 18 RBI, .949 OPS) would be a welcome surprise at this point.

A New Year

Last year through 34 games Chicago was 26-8 while the Cardinals were 18-16.  This year through 33 games St. Louis is 19-14 and the Cubs are 17-17 in 34 games. At the end of the weekend the Cardinals will be either 5.5, 3.5 or 1.5 ahead of Chicago, or a half game behind the Cubs. It’s early, but because the next nine times the two teams play will be at Wrigley Field, these three games have much significance.

If St. Louis can win this weekend’s series from Chicago it will go a long way toward validating the Cardinals as legitimate contenders in the NL Central and beyond. A Cubs sweep will remind everyone of who is really the team to beat in the National League. Let the games begin.

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