Next 10 days could determine Chicago Cubs' fate
The next 10 days could very well determine the fate of the Chicago Cubs' season.
They play Milwaukee at Miller Park and St. Louis at Busch Stadium before hooking up with the Brewers again at Wrigley Field.
That's nine games against their top two National League Central rivals.
Throw in the July 31 trading deadline while the Cubs are in St. Louis, and you have all the makings for a rollicking, must-see week and a half.
The Cubs and the Cardinals are tied for first place with records of 55-47 after the Cardinals completed a four-game series sweep Thursday at Pittsburgh. The Brewers are 2 games back at 54-50.
Each of these teams has its issues and problems -- the Cubs have a road record of 19-29, and the Brewers have a run differential of minus-12. Let's take a look at offense, starting pitching and bullpen to see if there are signs that one of these teams will separate itself from the pack.
The Cardinals have ranked near the bottom of the key offensive categories for much of the season, but they've come on recently.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, obtained in the off-season and feared by Cubs fans, has homered in four straight games and has 22 for the season.
Shortstop Paul DeJong, a graduate of Antioch High School, hit 3 homers Wednesday against the Pirates.
The Cubs' offense has been a sleeping giant all year. Its saving grace is it entered Thursday ranked third in the NL in on-base percentage and third in homers.
For all of the hand-wringing over the Cubs' supposed inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals and Brewers haven't been so hot at it, either. The Cardinals ranked 11th at .258 with RISP entering Thursday, while the Cubs were 13th (.254) and the Brewers were 14th (.249).
Kris Bryant is enjoying a resurgence, MVP-caliber year for the Cubs with his line of .299/.405/.562 with 21 homers and 51 RBI. Javier Baez is at .290/.321/.554 with 25 homers and 68 RBI.
Despite a recent home run drought, first baseman Anthony Rizzo's numbers likely will look like they always do at the end of the season. Getting catcher Willson Contreras off the injured list this week also should help.
The Brewers' Christian Yelich is showing last year's MVP award was no fluke. He entered Thursday leading the NL in homers (35) with a slash line of .335/.436/.707 with 77 RBI. Mike Moustakas has 26 homers and 66 RBI. The Brewers entered Thursday second in the league in homers and fifth in OBP.
On one hand, it's astonishing to see the Brewers have only 25 quality starts while the Cubs have 47 and the Cardinals 46.
On the other hand, the Milwaukee rotation has been beset by injuries, and they are giving another go to Gio Gonzalez, who starts the series opener against the Cubs. Starting pitching is one area the Brewers have failed to address adequately for the past two seasons, and it may end up costing them a postseason slot this year.
The Cubs have had Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Cole Hamels on the IL at times this year, with Hamels appearing to be nearing a return from an oblique injury.
When all five of the Cubs' starters are healthy, they give the team an edge.
The Cards are getting a nice boost from former first-round draft pick Dakota Hudson, who is 10-4 with a 3.61 ERA.
The June signing of Craig Kimbrel went a long way toward stabilizing the Cubs' bullpen. Kimbrel is 7 of 8 in save chances. Right-handers Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek have been more than reliable.
The much maligned (and sometimes unfairly) Pedro Strop, despite his 5.27 ERA, still has a respectable WHIP of 1.13, a tick below his career mark of 1.14. Strop has 9 saves, and with Kimbrel fully ensconced in the ninth, Strop should be able to settle down, provided his velocity isn't an issue.
The Cardinals suffered a blow when hard-throwing Jordan Hicks took his 14 saves to the IL with him in June with season-ending Tommy John surgery. Carlos Martinez has taken over as Cardinals closer, and he has 9 saves.
Overall, the Cardinals entered Thursday with a bullpen ERA of 3.93, a WHIP of 1.17 and 32 saves. The Cubs have 25 saves and lead in blown saves with 17, but those numbers could trend better now that things have stabilized.
How it will shake out
The Cubs still have the most talent in the division. Getting all five starters back into the rotation at one time and Kimbrel's presence should bode well. The Cubs are 36-11 when they get a quality start.
Manager Joe Maddon's Cubs teams are 197-107 after the all-star break in five seasons. Maddon's winning percentage of .648 after the break with the Cubs is the best in baseball by far.
Craig Counsell got the Brewers to the NLCS last year, and Mike Shildt loosened the atmosphere in St. Louis after taking over from Mike Matheny last year. If the Cardinals win the division or gain a wild card, Shildt will get strong Manager of the Year consideration.
In the end, it says here the Cubs will win the division and make their fifth straight postseason appearance, with the Cardinals winning the wild card and the Brewers left out.