Phillies (28-29) vs. Cubs (39-16)
7:05 p.m. on CSN
The Phillies were able to salvage a series split with the Brewers over the weekend and it's a good thing they did because their schedule stiffens again starting tonight. The Phils welcome the Cubs to Citizens Bank Park for a three-game series and that means three difficult starting pitching assignments.
Let's take a look at the series opener:
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1. Top staff in the game
You'd think it would be a big deal that the Phillies are missing Jake Arrieta, probably the second-best pitcher in baseball, again this week. But as lucky as the Phillies are to avoid the Cubs' ace in both of their 2016 series, it's not like there's a substantial drop-off with the rest of the rotation.
The Cubs' five starting pitchers — Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks — have combined for a 2.38 ERA so far this season. It's the lowest ERA any MLB team has had through its first 55 games since the 1981 Houston Astros, who featured Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, Don Sutton, Bob Knepper and Vern Ruhle.
The Cubs also have plenty of offense, but starting pitching is why they've remained so consistently dominant in 2016. Their record is 5½ games better than the next-best team, the Texas Rangers. The Cubs are 8-2 in their last 10 games, dating back to the start of their last series with the Phillies.
The Phils draw Lester tonight.
2. Better equipped vs. a lefty?
The Phillies have made some adjustments to their 25-man roster as the season has gone on, adding Tommy Joseph from the minors, Jimmy Paredes off of waivers and Cody Asche from the DL.
Asche, a left-handed hitter, will likely be out of the starting lineup tonight against the southpaw Lester. And Paredes, a switch-hitter, has been much better vs. righties throughout the course of his career, hitting .272 against them compared to .201 against lefties.
But the Phillies are still better positioned to hit a left-handed starter because of Joseph, who has unquestionably been a boost against lefties and really all pitching. Through 18 games, he's gone 17 for 57 (.298) with two doubles, four home runs and seven RBIs. He's walked once and struck out 15 times, a ratio you'd like to see improve, but the consistently solid contact Joseph has made has overshadowed those numbers.
Joseph is 6 for 14 against left-handed pitchers and went 1 for 3 off Lester at Wrigley Field at the end of May.
3. Scouting Lester
On May 27, Lester shut the Phillies down like he always does, allowing one run over 6⅓ innings with seven strikeouts. He's 5-0 with a 1.71 ERA in seven career starts against the Phillies.
Lester (6-3, 2.29 ERA) threw 32 cutters in that game, the most he's thrown in his last 22 starts dating back to last August. Typically, you'll see a pitcher throw his cutter to hitters from the opposite side because it runs in on them and can jam them. But in that May game, Lester threw 16 cutters to lefties and 16 cutters to righties. He threw it six times with two strikes on a lefty and it led to no hits, four outs and two strikeouts.
The Phillie who hit him best was Peter Bourjos, who had a two-hit game and is 5 for 13 lifetime off Lester with a double. Bourjos and Tyler Goeddel will likely be the Phillies' corner outfielders tonight.
4. Bad timing for Morgan
Adam Morgan desperately needs to get back on track to keep a strong hold of his spot in the Phillies' rotation, so it doesn't help that he's facing the Cubs for the second time in 11 days.
Morgan is 1-4 with a 7.07 ERA in seven starts this season. In his last two starts, he's allowed 12 earned runs, 17 hits and five homers in 10 innings. He's lost his last four starts overall, allowing 21 earned runs in 19⅔ innings.
Morgan is going to struggle against the better, more patient offenses. He relies on pinpoint command, and teams like the Cubs and Nationals (his last opponent) have the plate discipline to wait him out and the power to make him pay when he's behind in the count.
When Morgan last faced these Cubs, he fell apart after the first time through the batting order. After the Cubs saw him once, they went 6 for 11 with three home runs and a triple. Jorge Soler, David Ross and Kris Bryant all took him deep.
It's unknown who the Phillies would turn to next if they were to bounce Morgan from the rotation. Prospects Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson have each struggled a bit lately and need some more seasoning at Triple A. Alec Asher (calf) is on the DL at Triple A, and Severino Gonzalez is working as a long reliever. It could be someone like David Buchanan, who's struggled at Triple A, or James Russell, who has had some success in four starts with Lehigh Valley after failing as a lefty specialist with the Phils early this season.
5. This and that
• The Phillies finally scored more than three runs in an inning Sunday. It was the 151st time a team has done that this season but the first time the Phillies did it. It only took 504 innings.
• Maikel Franco looks like he may be finally breaking out of this lengthy slump. He homered again Sunday, his 10th of the year. Over his last 13 games he's hit .283 with a double, three homers, eight RBIs, five walks and six strikeouts. He's walked in two straight games for the first time since April 27 and 28. Franco is on pace for 28 home runs and 88 RBIs this season.
• With a four-hit day Sunday, Odubel Herrera is second in the majors with a .426 on-base percentage, trailing only the Cubs' Ben Zobrist (.438). There are 20 players in the majors who have had at least 150 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot and Herrera ranks first with a .335 batting average and .425 OBP.
• First baseman Anthony Rizzo is getting hot for the Cubs, hitting .389 with two doubles and two homers over the last week. Rizzo didn't play the last time Morgan faced the Cubs.
• Morgan must also be careful with powerful infielder Javier Baez, who has two homers, a double and six RBIs over his last four games. He went 2 for 4 in the game Morgan started, and is 10 for 23 (.435) with a 1.239 OPS this season against lefties.