Series 37 Preview: Cubs at Cardinals
St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter has been one of the NL’s best this year. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Holding the league’s third-best record and a 7.5-game lead on one of the Wild Card spots, the Cardinals have their sights set on making up a four-game deficit on the first-place Pirates in the NL Central. The Cardinals had a wrench thrown into their campaign when team talisman Yadier Molina went down with a sprained knee at the end of July. The team has gone 4-5 since and lost 2.5 games of ground in the process. Molina won’t be available for this series, though the team hopes to have him back in a week. St. Louis still has plenty of firepower at the plate and on the mound, and they have one of the game’s best farm systems to supplement their current roster. But with the Pirates showing no signs of letting up, the Cardinals will have to find another gear to avoid the one-game Wild Card playoff for the second straight season.
HITTING: 4.9 Runs Scored/Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals may be without their best player, but they have plenty of offense, young and old. Veteran outfielders Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday continue to provide formidable punch in the Nos. 2 and 4 spots in the lineup. The switch-hitting Beltran has hit 20 home runs this season at age 36. Holliday’s .281 AVG/.362 OBP/.446 SLG supplies plenty of all-around value, though each component has been on a gradual five-year decline. Surrounding them in the lineup are second baseman Matt Carpenter, first baseman Allen Craig and third baseman David Freese. In just his second big league season, Carpenter has become one of the game’s most valuable players, ranking 10th in NL Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. His .379 on-base percentage provides plenty of opportunities for the top of the lineup to drive in runs. Craig, meanwhile, has proved to be a steal as an eighth-round pick in the 2006 draft, with a consistently .300-plus batting average despite a loss in power this year. One thing the Cardinals probably won’t be attempting is base theft. They’re a lead-footed bunch that ranks last with 41 stolen-base attempts in 114 games.
PITCHING: 3.7 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
The Cardinals’ lack of speed would hurt them more on defense if not for the fact that the team’s pitchers resolve one-fifth of all plate appearances with strikeouts. They also are excellent at avoiding free passes. Tonight’s starter is 26-year-old righty Lance Lynn, who is having a nearly identical season to his breakout campaign last year. He employs a low-90s fastball and high-80s slider/cutter he leans on versus righties, as well as a two-seamer and change-up that he drops versus lefties. On Saturday, the Cubs will see promising 6-foot-6 right-hander Michael Wacha take the mound. Though the 2012 first-rounder has a 4.58 ERA through three starts, he has good peripheral numbers and has held his own so far. He sports a low-to-mid 90s fastball with great downhill plane, a tight curveball that he hasn’t pulled out much in big league action, and an impressive mid-80s change-up. The series wraps up against right-hander Joe Kelly, who has done Yeoman’s work as a swingman the past couple of seasons. His power sinker has acclimated well to starting, and he’s coming off four great outings in a row. Closer Edward Mujica has salvaged a ninth-inning role that could have been a disaster with Jason Motte missing the season due to Tommy John surgery—and after Mitchell Boggs’ awful audition. But it’s yet another outstanding young arm, lefty Trevor Rosenthal and his 98-100 mph fastball, that has batters shaking in their boots when it most counts.