Perhaps a year or two ahead of schedule, the Chicago Cubs entered the All-Star break in playoff position for the first time in seven years.
They should feel confident about getting off to a solid second-half start behind Kyle Hendricks – even if he and the rest of the pitching staff may have a new batterymate for the foreseeable future.
As the right-hander looks to extend his scoreless streak, the Cubs will try for a fourth straight road win Friday night against an Atlanta Braves team that limped into the break.
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By the estimation of some prognosticators, Chicago’s rising talent wasn’t expected to help the club compete for the postseason until 2016 at the earliest. But with new manager Joe Maddon at the helm, the Cubs (47-40) have a hold on the NL’s second wild-card spot.
The club also has its best record at the break since last winning the NL Central in 2008.
”If somebody came up to me in spring training and said ‘here’s where you’ll be at the end of the first half,”’ president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "I’d have taken it in a heartbeat.”
While its offense has been unreliable despite the presence of All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, Chicago has been carried by a pitching staff that ranks fifth in the majors with a 3.31 ERA.
Hendricks (4-4, 3.55 ERA) has been a key contributor of late, going 2-0 over three straight scoreless outings. He extended that streak to 22 1-3 innings last Friday when he gave up five hits over seven innings in a 1-0 home loss to the White Sox.
His 7.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last seven starts is third in the NL since June 7.
"I’m trying not to do too much and simplifying everything," Hendricks told MLB’s official website. "I’ve been using my four-seam fastball more. I think that’s been helping."
He won’t have Miguel Montero behind the plate to help him out Friday and possibly for the next six weeks. Chicago’s catcher could be out until September with a jammed left thumb suffered Saturday against the White Sox, and the Cubs will call up top prospect Kyle Schwarber to take his place.
Schwarber was a big hit in his first six major league games last month, going 8 for 22 with a homer. He spent all but one inning as the designated hitter, but now figures to split catching duties with David Ross and Taylor Teagarden.
Hendricks has never faced the Braves (42-47), who haven’t exactly been knocking the cover off the ball. They’ve hit .167 with runners in scoring position while putting up three runs or fewer in each of the last four of a five-game losing streak.
Atlanta is averaging 2.70 runs since June 21 – second fewest in MLB – and Andrelton Simmons (.154) and Jace Peterson (.158) have especially struggled in that stretch. Making matters worse, closer Jason Grilli went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon last Saturday.
The Braves haven’t dropped six straight since an eight-game skid from July 29-Aug. 6. They’re hoping to turn things around at Turner Field, where they’ve won seven of nine.
Julio Teheran (6-4, 4.56) has gone 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA in eight home starts compared to 1-4 with a 6.95 mark in 10 on the road. The right-hander hasn’t allowed an earned run over 14 innings in his last two outings at Atlanta.
"It’s one of those things you can’t explain," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Maybe we’ll fly him in the day of his (road) starts, just fly him in that day. He can sleep in his bed, maybe that will help."
Teheran has gone 2-0 with a 3.81 ERA in four career starts versus Chicago. Rizzo is 2 for 12 with a home run off him while Starlin Castro has gone 1 for 11.
The Braves have outscored the Cubs 72-42 in winning 11 of the past 13 meetings. Chris Johnson went 12 for 24 with three homers in the six matchups last season.