Expect Pitching Duel Between Rival Cardinals and Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball

Rainman M.

Sunday, July 23, 2017 1:55 PM UTC

Sunday, Jul. 23, 2017 1:55 PM UTC

The trend in this series has been excellent starting pitching followed by atrocious relief pitching. Will this trend continue in tonight's series finale?

The Cubs have won seven of their last eight after they evened the series against the Cardinals with yesterday's late comeback win.  The Cubs have been dangerous with their hitting, producing a .879 OPS (on-base plus slugging; average is around .730) in their last seven days, and with their starting pitching. The Cubs’ starter Jose Quintana has dealt in his career with five Cardinals in a total of only 23 at-bats. On the contrary, the hot-hitting Cubs are very familiar with Wacha and a number of their batters have enjoyed success against him. In particular, Anthony Rizzo is 15-for-31 with 3 home runs and Kris Bryant is 6-for-19 with two triples and a home run in their career against Wacha. The Cardinals are 4-5 since the All-Star Break and are struggling to stay in the race for the NL Central.

Probable Pitchers

Michael Wacha (7-3 3.71 ERA) starts for St. Louis.  In recent years, when he has faced the Cubs he has done so in the midst of a slump. When the Cubs shelled him on June 4th he was in the midst of a stretch spanning from May 25th to June 21st, during which in four of six starts his ERA was 9 or higher and he failed to complete the fifth inning in 5 of 6 starts. But Wacha has turned things around, giving up just three runs in his past 26.2 innings.  The key to the difference for Wacha between then and now has been his command of the plate. During his rough stretch, he was walking close to a batter per inning. Walking a lot of batters prevented him from ever finding his groove. At-bats turned into lengthy grinds, which wore him down and made him more susceptible to mistakes, to leaving balls out in the more hittable parts of the plate. But since June 26th, he has walked just 4 batters in 26.2 innings.  His improvement in command has helped him strike out 31 batters in this most recent stretch. Wacha is able to keep the ball in the lower parts of the strike zone, where he becomes most difficult to hit for opposing batters. He is growing more comfortable with his two favorite strikeout pitches, his fastball and changeup. Not only do they complement each other by creating an effective change of pace that keeps batters off-balance, but their dropping movement in the lower parts of the strike zone makes them elusive and difficult to make contact with. Batters are striking out more often and making less hard contact with Wacha’s pitches because of his command and location. He will look to take advantage of his good form and turn around his poor history against the Cubs.

Jose Quintana (5-8 4.20 ERA) counters for Chicago. Quintana, like Wacha, is turning his season around. His ERA was over 5 at the end of May, until he has lowered it by allowing batters to hit just over .200 against him since the beginning of June. The most important thing for Quintana has been fixing his mechanics. He had struggled to get into a rhythm because he was struggling to correct the timing and extension of his pitching delivery. Since he was unable to effectively complete his pitching motions, he lost control over the location of his pitches. For example, fastballs that he intended to locate away from right-handed hitters often cut back over the heart of the plate. Curve balls with which he wanted to strike out opposing batters were dropping too far away from the strike zone, so that opposing batters were not interested in swinging at them. Overall, he was walking more batters and giving up more home runs.  But he is developing consistency and looking more like the ace that he had been for the White Sox, as in three of his last five starts he has thrown 6 or 7 shutout innings.  In his last start, he struck out 12 and walked none. Quintana's curveball, which is normally his biggest strikeout pitch, has been particularly solid, as batters have whiffed at over 30% of his curveballs in his last two games, whereas they had been whiffing at less than 15% of them in previous months.  Poor mechanics may have constituted a symptom of a psychological problem for Quintana: motivation. Amidst rumors that the Yankees would trade for him, he threw 6.1 shutout innings in New York in order to impress his potential bidders. In his first start for the Cubs, he won his new teammates over by throwing seven shutout innings.  In having a change of scenery and playing now for a playoff-contending team, Quintana has every reason to be motivated. In the midst of a tight playoff race, he will want to deliver on primetime baseball in his first home start for the Cubs against his new division rival.

The Verdict

Oddsmakers have shown disrespect to Wacha by opening the Cardinals at +170 at most books. Wacha, who has dropped his ERA from 5.09 last season to 3.71 this season, will play the Cubs during a stretch of good form, during which his K:BB rate has been 31:4 since June 26th. Quintana is also in great form. He has been motivated and mechanically sound. The Cardinals tend to struggle against pitchers that they have not seen much of, and a left-handed ace should be no different. Oddsmakers have yet to publish a total for this game because they will wait to see how windy Chicago will be.  Right now, weather reports indicate a night with weak winds blowing infield. 15 of the 20 runs scored in this series have come in the eighth or ninth inning mainly because of both team’s implosive bullpens, which has also put pressure on the starting pitchers to throw more pitches.  I expect strong performances from Quintana and Wacha, but because both teams are capable of so much late-inning madness, I am recommending a first-5 play only on our MLB Picks.

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