Cubs @ Cardinals: Series Thread (Games 44-46)
The Cubs (22-21) passed the one-quarter mark during the week and take on their division rivals, the first place Cardinals (25-18), for the first time in 2021. The slumping Brewers (21-22) have surrendered the second place spot to the Cubs for the time being. At just over a fourth of the way through the season, the Cubs have just about played to expectations. They've yo-yoed around .500 while getting some pleasant surprises in the early going (Kris Bryant, Jake Arrieta, Craig Kimbrel), and some significant disappointments (Zach Davies, Kyle Hendricks, several hitters). Most recently, Jason Heyward has headed to the IL with a hamstring issue, but lefty sluggers Joc Pederson and Ian Happ have stepped up their performances just in time to pick up some slack. The Cubs have an opportunity to cut the Cardinals' lead in the division during this three-game set. See below for the pitching matchups.
Game 44, Friday, May 21, 7:15 pm central
CHC: RHP Kyle Hendricks (3-4, 5.27 ERA)
STL: RHP Carlos Martinez (3-4, 4.35 ERA)
Kyle Hendricks continues to work on his return to normalcy (and a reasonable ERA). Last time out, he went 8 efficient innings in a win against Detroit. He allowed only one earned run and struck out eight on his way to victory. Over his last three starts he's allowed six earned runs in 20 innings pitched, much of htat coming on soft contact, and he's collected 17 strikeouts. He looks more familiar each time out. Paul Goldschmidt has troubled him in the past, going 10 for 29 with six doubles and striking out only five times. New Cardinal Nolan Arenado and long-time redbird Matt Carpenter each have two career homers off of him while now other Cardinal on the active roster has taken him deep.
As recently as 2018, Carlos Martinez was the Cardinals' Opening Day starter. That same season, however, he found himself in the bullpen after a series of IL stints. Lat and rotator cuff injuries kept him in the bullpen throughout 2019, and he made 5 starts in the shortened 2020 season. That means his 7 starts in 2021 are the most he's made since 2018. He hasn't entirely found his footing. For one thing, he's not missing anywhere near as many bats as you would expect him to. His strikeout rate is about half of his career average. His fastball velocity is almost exactly where it was in 2020, under 94 mph on average, a couple of ticks below where he sat earlier in his career. He's gotten by, however, partly by allowing less than half a homer per nine innings. Cubs hitters Contreras and Happ have feasted off of Martinez with over 1.000 OPS for each of them in a total of 32 ABs (combined). Bryant, however, is 7 for 34 with 15(!) strikeouts.
Game 45, Saturday, May 22, 6:15 pm central
CHC: RHP Adbert Alzolay (2-3, 4.62 ERA)
STL: RHP Miles Mikolas (0-0, -.-- ERA)
Alzolay continued a run of remarkable consistency last time out by going five innings, allowing three earned runs (on two homers), and earning the win. He struck out only three, but otherwise this is more or less the start we've come to expect in early 2021. He's been nearly a two-pitch guy, using his fastball 48.9% of the the time and his slier 42.1% of the time. As might not surprise you, that's lead to a quick hook, especially when lefties are due to get their third look at him. It's probably ungenerous to focus too much on the next step forward for him--staying healthy and in the majors has already been a major step forward. But the next step is probably working a third pitch effectively into the mix. Perhaps he can lean on the changeup or curve to get lefties off-balance.
Mikolas missed all of 2020 due to surgery on the flexor tendon in his pitching arm. This will be his 2021 debut and the start of his third season as a Cardinal. He's held his own against the most formidale Cubs hitters. Eric Sogard is 3 for 5 with a homerun and two doubles off of him.
Game 46, Sunday, May 23, 6:08 pm central
CHC: RHP Zach Davies (2-2, 5.58 ERA)
STL: RHP Adam Wainwright (2-4, 4.63 ERA)
Like Hendricks, Davies has had somewhat of a comeback sub-plot. Over his last four starts, he's allowed only five earned runs in 21.1 innings and he's brought his walk rate back to earth. The core of the Cardinals lineup, Arenado, Carpenter, and Goldschmidt, have pretty much crushed him over their careers.
Adam Wainwright defied aging curves to enjoy a surprisingly strong 2020. He had his lowers ERA since 2015 and accrued 1.1 fWAR across 10 starts. He also enjoyed a .247 BABIP. The batted-ball fates have not favored him to that degree in 2021, however, and his ERA is back into the mid-4s. He's been up and down throughout his starts so far. He pitched a complete game against the Phillies back on 4/26, although he took the loss. Most recently, he allowed six earned runs to the Padres across 4 innings. Anthony Rizzo has seen a ton of him and appears not to enjoy it all that much: he has a .648 OPS in 60 ABs. Ian Happ is 8 for 14 with four homeruns off the veteran righty--not facing an Ace until he's on the wrong side of 35 has its advantages!