Saturday, September 19, 2009

Series Preview - Chicago Cubs

Author's note: This preview was actually finished 3 days ago. I intended to post it yesterday, but got distracted with official Navy duties. Shame on me. Anyway, for your reading pleasure.

Next we welcome the Chicago Cubs to the program; the Cubs make their last appearance in St Louis for 2009, and close out the homestand. The Cardinals have one 8 of the previous 13 meetings, and look to win the season series outright for the first time since 2004.

Last chance to heckle these Cubs. Odds are the team will look different in 2010 (good bye, Milton Bradley? Alfonso Soriano? Zambrano?)

Current snapshot

St Louis: 85-62, 1st in NL Central, 9 games ahead of Chicago (8 on the loss side). After hammering the league in August, the Cardinals have slipped into a funk, aided by some quality opposing pitching. They’ve currently lost 5 of 6, all at home, their worst stretch at home since June 3-8. The unsettled situation for #4 and #5 starters is a problem for the balance of the regular season, but may be moot for the playoffs, assuming Smoltz becomes the #4 starter for any 7-game series they get to.

Chicago: 75-70, 2rd in NL Central, 9 games behind. Cubs hold the 8th best record in the NL, trailing Colorado by 7 games in the Wild Card; they have a better shot at winning the Wild Card than the Division. At the end, with the season basically over, they’ve finally gotten hot, having won 6 of their last 9. Chicago’s troubles have been well documented. The Milton Bradley disaster (.260/.380/.762, 12 HR 39 RBI for $10 million). The Alfonso Soriano abomination. Injuries hammering the pitching staff. Carlos Marmol walking at least a hitter an inning. Kevin Gregg ineffective as the closer. And so on. This is a proud team, and I would think they intend to plant a seed for next season by playing hard and trying to take the series (yeah you’re better now, but wait until next year).

Pitching match-ups

18 September: Ted Lilly (12-8, 3.05) vs Smoltz
. Left-handed Ted Lilly always seems to give the Cardinals trouble; perhaps that’s because he’s 7-3 in 13 starts against them. Lilly has started two games against the Redbirds in 2009, losing to Pineiro 3-0 on May 19th in St Louis, and winning 5-2 on July 11th (beating Thompson). What drives his success against St Louis is a microcosm of why he’s successful in general – high strikeout rate, 4:1 K/BB ratio, low BABIP (.278), FIP of 3.81. He does tend to give up a lot of HR, though (22 this season), but has found ways to minimize the damage, as summarized in this commentary.

Lots of Cardinals have at least 10 plate appearances against him – in fact, most of the starting 8 (Pujols, Molina, Ludwick, Ryan, Schumaker, DeRosa). As a group, these players are hitting .179 against him. Pujols (2), and Molina/Glaus/Lugo/Ankiel/DeRosa (1 each) have homered off Lilly.

I applaud the Cardinals for not starting Lohse in this game. Smoltz missed his last start with the shoulder issue; I doubt the 10 days off completely healed his shoulder, but the time should have had some recuperative effect for him. Smoltz has had a lot of success against the Cubs (15-5, 3.33 ERA in 39 appearances of which 29 were starts), so that bodes well. He is 0-1 in St Louis this season. Smoltz has a big-game pitcher reputation he earned based on his body of post-season work with Atlanta. With the Cardinals reeling right now, they need a big effort from him Friday.

Statistical Oddity: For all the time Smoltz has been in the NL, only 4 current Cubs have faced him: Lee (.763 OPS, 1 HR), Ramirez (1.218 OPS, 2 HR), Miles (.533 OPS, 3 RBI), and Bradley (.250 OPS, 3 K).

19 September: Ryan Dempster (10-8, 3.84) vs Carpenter. Dempster turned a 17-win season into a 4 year/$52 million deal last November, and other than suffering the year’s stupidest on-field injury, he’s pitched essentially as he did last year. His major indicators are on his career marks, except for his BB/9 which sits at 3.2, matching last year’s career low rate, and his HR allowed, currently 19 (the most he’s allowed since 2002).

He’s faced St Louis a lot in his career, mostly as a reliever; as a starter he’s 4-5, 4.75 ERA in 14 career starts. He’s opposed the Cardinals three times this season; the team is 1-2 in those starts (Dempster: 0-1, 4.26 ERA, 1.263 WHIP, 6.16K/9, 1.85 K/BB).

Lots of Cardinals have had lots of PA against him, led by Ludwick, LaRue, and Lugo, who all have at least a .900 OPS against him. Lugo is also tied with AP for the most HR off Dempster (2) of the 2009 Redbirds.

The off-day allows LaRussa to shuffle his rotation, and he’s taking advantage of it by starting Carpenter Saturday. It gives Carp an extra day of rest from his Sunday start against Florida, which can only help the right-hander. Carpenter is 9-3 career against the small Bears, 3-1 against them in St Louis, and 2-0 this season. Chris relinquished the league ERA lead to Lincecum on Sunday, he remains 2nd in WHIP (to Dan Haren – still irritated by the Mulder trade) and 5th in K/BB ratio (Haren, Vasquez, Pineiro, Lincecum).

Ramirez, Lee,and Bradley have homered off him in their careers. Current Cubs are hitting .304 against Carp, with a .743 OPS

Statistical Oddity II: Of the current Cubs with 10 PA vs Carpenter, Carlos Zambrano leads in OPS (1.300). Insert ‘small sample size’ derision here.

20 September: Carlos Zambrano (8-6, 3.94) vs Wainwright. The Completely and Utterly Crazy Big Z returns to the hill. He last faced the Redbirds in Lohse’s return to the rotation (July 12), which was also the first game of a doubleheader and the last day of games before the All-Star Break. Zambrano broke his recent string of suckiness against St Louis in that game, allowing only 3 ER in 5 IP and getting the win. In his previous 3 starts he’d surrendered at least 7 ER. CAUE Big Z hasn’t been the rock #1 this season Cub fans have come to expect, and arguably Lilly (and possibly Dempster) have passed him as the #1 and #2 starters in the rotation, but he still presents a tough matchup for the Cardinals.

AP has 5 HR and an .862 OPS off the big guy, but Ludwick has really enjoyed stepping into the box when Zambrano’s on the mound (7-11, 2 HR, 1.847 OPS).

Zambrano has won his last 4 starts in St Louis, and has an 8-inning scoreless streak going at Busch.

Wainwright throws one pretty good (at least, to me watching the replay) pitch that Uggla hits out, and loses 2-1. Tough. He tries for win #19 on Sunday (which should be the ESPN Sunday night tilt as well). Wainwright has manhandled the Cubs this season; personally he’s 3-0 against them, and the team is 4-0 against the Cubs when he starts. His last start was also 12 July, when he threw 8 innings allowing 2 runs. That game also happened to be on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.

Adam hasn’t had much luck facing Zambrano in his career. This will be the 4th time they’ve hooked up, and Z holds a 2-1 edge. Adam did win the last time, a year ago almost to the day (19 Sep 08 in Chicago). Six Cub starters have at least 12 PA against him: Lee (.660 OPS), Ramirez (1.074 OPS, 4 2B, HR), Theriot (.604 OPS), Fukudome (a Fukudome sighting! .800 OPS, HR), Fontenot (.715 OPS), and Soto (.962 OPS).

Prognosis/prediction. The Cardinals need this series. They can put away the Cubs with a sweep. The pitching matchups should be dynamite. Cardinal struggles at the plate against good pitching is concerning, but I think they’ll generate just enough offense to pull it out. I also think LaRussa will pull out all the managerial stops too.

Cardinals win 2 of 3.

Magic Number for Division Title: 8. Predicted Magic Number PM 9/20: 4.

Go Cards!

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