MIAMI — The Chicago Cubs, since the start of 2015, have won more games than any team in baseball, but the defending World Series champions are off to a well-documented slow start this year.
On Saturday, the Cubs (37-36) will face the Miami Marlins (33-39) in the third of a four-game weekend series at Marlins Park.
Chicago has won 11 fewer games than last year at this same point, and most of that can be traced to the rotation. Last year, Cubs starters had a 2.36 ERA compared to 4.45 at the same point this season.
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Chicago’s offense has also suffered with three expected starters out of action. Right fielder Jason Heyward and second baseman Ben Zobrist are on the disabled list, and left fielder Kyle Schwarber was demoted to the minors on Thursday.
Fortunately for the Cubs, some of their young players have started to emerge, including shortstop Addison Russell, who drove in 95 runs last season but has now been entrusted with the cleanup role in the batting order. Right fielder Ian Happ, who made his major league debut in the middle of last month, already has 10 home runs.
Russell is 23 years old and Happ is 22. Russell had a tough game in Friday’s 2-0 loss to the Marlins, but Happ had two hits and has six in the first two games of the series.
“When he starts making contact, he keeps making contact,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Happ, a switch-hitter who has been elevated to the third spot in the batting order.
Happ, Chicago’s first-round pick in 2015 — taken ninth overall out of the University of Cincinnati — last month became the first Cubs player in 34 years to homer in both his first career road game and first home game. He was also the first Cubs player since at least 1913 to score at least one run in seven of his first eight career games.
Russell, who hit 21 homers last year, is now protecting Happ in the order, and Maddon likes having him batting fourth.
“He drives in runs — it’s as simple as that,” Maddon said. “He did that last year. If you get guys on base in front of him, he will give you as good of an at-bat as anybody in that lineup.”
As for his pitching rotation, Maddon on Saturday will turn to Jon Lester (4-4, 3.83) in his matchup against fellow left-hander Justin Nicolino (0-1, 5.06) of Miami.
Lester has never beaten the Marlins in four career starts, sporting a 4.91 ERA. He has beaten the 28 other major league teams he has faced (he has never pitched against the Boston Red Sox) but not the Marlins.
This will be Lester’s 16th start of the season and he has been much better at home (3-1, 2.68 ERA) than on the road (1-3, 5.85).
In his most recent start, against the San Diego Padres, he allowed just two runs in six innings, getting a no-decision in an eventual Cubs win. It was his eighth quality start.
Meanwhile, Nicolino (0-1, 5.06 ERA) will make his fifth start of the season when he faces the Cubs for the first time in his brief career.
Nicolino’s numbers per nine innings this season are poor across the board — too many hits allowed (11.3), too many homers (2.3), too many walks (3.9) and too few strikeouts (5.6).
In his most recent start, Nicolino lasted just three innings, allowing six runs (three earned) against the Washington Nationals.
Supporting Nicolino will be some of the more feared sluggers in the National League at the moment, namely Marcell Ozuna, who has 20 homers; Giancarlo Stanton, who has 19; and Justin Bour (18).
Stanton, asked what was going on, especially at spacious Marlins Park, joked with tech-obsessed media members.
“I don’t know,” Stanton said, “check the launch angles.”