Very important series opens at Pittsburgh's PNC Park on Tuesday afternoon -- the only matinee on the schedule -- as the Cubs and Pirates play Game 1 of a doubleheader. Pittsburgh is a -155 favorite on BetOnline MLB odds with a total of seven.
What You Need To Know
It's nearly a lock that these are going to be your two wild-card teams, although the Pirates still have a chance at overtaking St. Louis for the NL Central title -- I don't think that's likely. Pittsburgh leads Chicago by four games for the right to host that wild-card game. The Pirates have done so each of the past two seasons, losing to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants 8-0 last year and beating the Cincinnati Reds 6-2 in 2013. Without having any dog in this fight, I think it would be much more exciting for the Cubs to host that game because they haven't been in the playoffs since 2008 and haven't won a postseason games since the infamous Steve Bartman NLCS in 2003. The Cubs really blew a chance to get closer to Pittsburgh over the weekend when they lost to the sad-sack Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday and Sunday (Chicago is only 2-5 vs. Philadelphia). The bullpen was a problem in both games and has been an issue most of the season. Chicago's magic number for clinching a playoff spot is 13. The Pirates enter having won three straight games.
The Cubs lead 7-5. Anthony Rizzo is hitting .444 against Pirates pitching this season with two homers, seven RBIs and 11 runs scored. Kris Bryant is 16-for-42 with 10 runs scored, a homer and 13 RBIs. Starlin Castro is 18-for-48 with a homer and 10 RBIs. Addison Russell is batting only .184 against Pittsburgh. Chris Coghlan is at .148. Pittsburgh's Starling Marte is batting .375 against the Cubs in 2015 with three homers and eight RBIs. Francisco Cervelli is 12-for-35 with eight RBIs. Andrew McCutchen is 10-for-40 with two homers and eight RBIs. Neil Walker is batting .209 vs. Chicago pitching. Pedro Alvarez is at .206.
The Pirates go with ace right-hander Gerrit Cole (16-8, 2.54) in the opener. He is on extra rest, having last pitched on Sept. 6 and shutting out the Cardinals on two hits over seven innings, whiffing seven. The team skipped his last start just to try and limit his season-long innings. Cole has split with the Cubs this year. On April 29 at Wrigley Field he beat them, allowing no earned runs and three hits over six innings. On May 16, also at Wrigley, he lost, allowing two runs and seven hits in six innings. Cole is 8-3 with a 2.74 ERA in 13 home starts. He is looking to become the first Pirate to win more than 16 games in a season since John Smiley went 20-8 in 1991. Pittsburgh is 8-2 in Cole's past 10 series-opening starts.
Castro is 5-for-13 career off Cole with four RBIs. Rizzo is 5-for-11 with a double. Bryant is 2-for-3 with two walks. Javier Baez has a homer in six at-bats against Cole. Coghlan is 2-for-10 with four strikeouts. Chicago remains without outfielder Jorge Soler. Originally there was talk he might be activated off the DL on Tuesday but now he's not going to be until this weekend.
It's Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.59) for the Cubs, and that likely brings that Chicago bullpen into play because Hammel generally doesn't go very deep in games. Hammel beat the Cardinals last time out, allowing three runs and four hits over six innings. He will be on a few days of extra rest as his usual spot in the rotation would have been Sunday. The Cubs are 5-2 at sportsbooks in Hammel's past seven starts.
Hammel is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in two starts against the Pirates this season. They are hitting .208 off him in 13 innings. He has struck out 12 and not walked anyone. McCutchen is 6-for-26 career off Hammel with two homers and three RBIs. Alvarez is 4-for-21 with two dingers and five knocked in. Josh Harrison is just 1-for-11 with five strikeouts.
MLB Free Picks: Take Pittsburgh as the team is 6-1 against the MLB odds in Cole's last seven vs. the Cubs. Go 'under' the total. It is 4-0 in Hammel's past four vs. the Pirates. The total has gone 'under' in seven of Cole's past 10 outings overall.