Phillies (26-21) at Cubs (31-14)
2:20 p.m. on TCN
After their having their second straight Thursday off, the Phillies open up a challenging three-game weekend series Friday afternoon against the Cubs, owners of the majors' best record.
Let's take a look at what to expect:
Complete coverage of the Fightin' Phils and their MLB rivals from NBC Sports Philadelphia.
1. Best in the bigs
The Cubs are three games better than any team in baseball. Their run differential of plus-119 is 47 better than the next-best team. They've scored the most third-most runs (256) and allowed just 137, which is 12 fewer than any other club.
With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs probably have the deepest starting rotation in baseball.
With Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, they have the National League's top offense.
With guys like Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur and David Ross making key contributions, they have one of the best benches in baseball.
There is no real weakness with this team. Even the mostly anonymous bullpen has been among the game's best, posting a 3.09 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 122⅓ innings.
This is, however, the right time to be playing the Cubs. Chicago is 4-6 in its last 10 games and 6-8 in its last 14. The Cubs did appear to get back on track by beating the Cardinals in the final two games of a nine-game road trip that ended Wednesday.
At Wrigley, the Cubs are 14-6. They've lost two home series this season to the Padres and Rockies.
2. Cool Lester Smooth
Props if you get The Wire reference.
The Phillies open the series against left-hander Jon Lester, who is 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA this season but is coming off his worst start. Lester allowed five runs in just 2⅔ innings in last weekend's loss at San Francisco.
Aside from that, he's enjoyed another very good season. The 32-year-old joined the Cubs in free agency prior to last season on a six-year, $155 million deal, and has gone 15-15 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 41 starts with Chicago. He's struck out 259 batters in 260⅓ innings.
The Phillies have faced Lester six times — five when he was with the Red Sox — and they've never beaten him. He's 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA against them and has allowed just 30 hits in 41 innings. He's gone seven innings in five of the six starts.
Lester's repertoire has remained consistent through the years. He throws mostly four-seam fastballs, cutters and curveballs. He'll also mix in sinkers and changeups, but 85 percent of his pitches this season have been four-seamers, cutters and curves.
Lester's cutter is his great equalizer against right-handed hitters, who have hit .240 against him the last four seasons. He can back-door it, starting it outside and having it break back over the outside corner, or start it over the middle and have it break in to jam a righty.
Current Phillies are 10 for 55 (.182) against Lester with two walks and 18 strikeouts. Ryan Howard and Freddy Galvis have each homered off him. Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 11, Cameron Rupp is 0 for 3 and Maikel Franco is 0 for 6. Odubel Herrera has never faced him.
3. Tommy time
Facing a lefty means an automatic start for Tommy Joseph at first base. Joseph went 4 for 11 in the Tigers series with a double and a homer, hitting the ball hard even when he made outs.
What will be interesting is how Pete Mackanin uses Joseph the rest of the series. The Phillies will face right-handers on Saturday and Sunday in Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. Only once since Joseph came up from Triple A has he started against a right-hander in place of Howard. Joseph faced two righties in the Tigers series, but Howard was the designated hitter. The only game in which Joseph replaced Howard at first base against a right-hander was last Sunday in the Phils' win over Casey Kelly and the Braves.
Joseph hit .324 with seven extra-base hits against right-handed pitchers at Triple A this season, and is 4 for 18 (.222) with a double and a homer against them with the Phils. Both extra-base hits came Monday off Mike Pelfrey.
Here's the Phillies' lineup Friday:
1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
7. Tyler Goeddel, LF
8. Adam Morgan, P
9. Peter Bourjos, RF
4. Morgan's command must be perfect
It's the same thing every time Adam Morgan takes the mound but it's especially true this afternoon: He needs to throw quality strikes early in counts and command his fastball nearly flawlessly on the inside and outside corners.
Morgan (1-2, 5.61) is coming off a decent start against the Braves in which he allowed two runs over six innings. But the Braves and Cubs are about as different as two offenses can be.
Morgan held lefties last season to a .225 batting average, but this year they're 8 for 26 (.308) against him with two doubles and a homer. He's not the kind of lefty who makes it uncomfortable for a same-handed hitter, but Rizzo and Heyward are both out of the Cubs' lineup Friday.
Morgan faced the Cubs last season and allowed four runs in five innings in a loss. Fowler, Heyward and Javier Baez all had multi-hit games against him.
5. Model for success?
The Cubs endured several years of losing during their own rebuild and have emerged as one of the most talented teams in recent years. It took a little luck along the way. The Astros drafted Mark Appel first overall and left Kris Bryant at No. 2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took advantage of a rare win-now move from Billy Beane in trading a half-season of Jeff Samardzija and Hammel for Russell.
But the Cubs also identified Kyle Schwarber (out for the season, but a very good young hitter) and drafted him higher than most analysts predicted he'd go. They found lights-out closer Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft. They clearly won the 1-for-1 swap of Andrew Cashner for Rizzo. Most importantly, they bought low on a highly-touted Arrieta, who was struggling with the Orioles before emerging into one of the three-best starting pitchers in the majors.
And when the prospects began graduating to the majors, the Cubs did what the Phillies will likely do in a year or two: They spent.
As much as everyone loves to talk about Chicago's young talent, they also spent $184 million on Heyward, $155 million on Lester, $56 million on Zobrist and $60 million on catcher Miguel Montero. They filled in their roster with veterans who fit the plan, and it's allowed them to continue to ease in guys like Baez and Jorge Soler.
It would take a ton of breaks for the Phillies to be as exciting or as successful a team as the Cubs in a few years, but Chicago has shown that this model can work in a major market.