Chicago Cubs enter crucial 7 games vs. Diamondbacks in scintillating form

Sep 7, 2023, 6:55 AM | Updated: 2:12 pm

Ian Happ #8, Nico Hoerner #2 and Dansby Swanson #7 of the Chicago Cubs look on prior to the game ag...

Ian Happ #8, Nico Hoerner #2 and Dansby Swanson #7 of the Chicago Cubs look on prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on June 15, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The 72-68 Arizona Diamondbacks will play seven of their next 11 games against the 76-64 Chicago Cubs, and two potential outcomes could swing the National League’s wild card picture.

Arizona could get the better of Chicago, taking five or six of ’em to grab hold of the Cubs (that sit four games ahead of them in the second wild card position) and yank them back down to compete with them, Cincinnati, Miami and San Francisco for a two-spot chase instead of just one.

Or, it could go the other direction, with the Cubs dominating and further separating themselves, as they have done since the All-Star break (34-17). This would doom the D-backs to just one reachable wild card spot, and in the process, require them to make up a ton of ground with just 11 games remaining in the regular season.

The stakes are pretty high!

Arizona travels to Wrigley Field for four games there, beginning on Thursday. From there, it’s a four-game stop in New York against the Mets before three contests back at Chase Field where it hosts the Cubs.

On top of the significance of these fixtures, the D-backs could see the Cubs in the postseason. A matchup could emerge with either both as wild card teams or the Cubs winning the division. They trail the Milwaukee Brewers by just a game and a half for the top of the N.L. Central, and with how far ahead of the pack the Braves and Dodgers are, the N.L. Central winner will almost assuredly not receive a bye.

With that in mind, here’s what to know about Chicago, one of the hottest teams in baseball and a surefire contender for a pennant.

Cody Bellinger’s bounce-back 2023

One of the best stories in baseball is one that will surely make D-backs fans slightly gag when it is labeled as such.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger immediately dominated the league as a Rookie of the Year in 2017 and N.L. MVP two years later, only to post an OPS just north of .600 across 900 plate appearances each of the last two seasons, a dramatic nosedive.

It was poor timing for the lefty heading into free agency, so he got a one-year prove-it deal from the Cubs, and boy has he proved it.

Bellinger’s batting .321, a top-six mark in baseball, with an OPS of .920 off 24 homers and 86 RBIs. He is coming off a nuclear two-month stretch in which his monthly OPS for July (1.122) and August (.887) led the charge during Chicago’s summer surge. It appeared the Valley native was a flash in the pan the rest of baseball had figured out. He is anything but that.

The only real flaw inside a balanced Cubs batting order that works long counts and could have anyone be a difference-maker was high-end star power. Bellinger now brings that, making Chicago a true threat in October.

Formidable starting pitching

Arizona’s recent offensive woes will have to work through a pretty darn good group of arms.

The Cubs’ rotation is headlined by two All-Stars, Justin Steele and the injured Marcus Stroman.

Steele in his last outing tossed a career-high dozen strikeouts across eight scoreless innings, further solidifying his case as perhaps the man to beat in the N.L. Cy Young race. His record is now a phenomenal 16-3, with the league’s second-best ERA at 2.55. Arizona gets a tough break with this schedule, as the projected starters would have Steele up for the third game in Chicago and the series opener at Chase Field.

Stroman was throwing like he was going to be in the running for hardware too before a rough July, with a 9.11 ERA in six outings. He then went on the 15-day injured list on Aug. 1 and is still on it a month later due to fractured rib cartilage presenting itself as a new issue that has his timeline a mystery and could sideline him the rest of the season. Stroman participated in a bullpen session on Monday, so he’s working his way back, but it would be surprising to see him make that mid-September series.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they’ve been lucky with some unforeseen help in the rotation.

Stroman was replaced by 26-year-old Javier Assad, who in the six starts replacing Stroman has allowed eight earned runs in 36 innings. Veteran lefty Drew Smyly was moved to the bullpen, and in his spot, left-handed rookie Jordan Wicks has been awesome, 3-0 with a 2.16 ERA in his first trio of MLB appearances.

Cubs mainstay Kyle Hendricks, a stud for a half-decade before taking a rough two-year dip similar to Bellinger’s, has bounced back nicely this year with a solid 3.73 ERA and great 1.14 WHIP. Marquee free-agent signing Jameson Taillon has been a different story, battling through an inconsistent 2023 after getting a four-year, $68 million deal. His ERA is 5.73 and he’s given up 23 earned runs in his previous 26.1 innings but is also capable of outings worthy of that price tag.

The D-backs, of course, have their own elite one-two to combat great starting pitching and will need every bit of it from Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, who both get nods in Chicago.

Filling in gaps

Beyond the hitting and pitching at the top, Chicago does well between the margins. The Cubs rate highly in several defensive metrics: including fourth in defensive runs saved (43). And when tracking Baseball Savant’s outs above average, shortstop Dansby Swanson (first), second baseman Nico Horner (tied for second) and third baseman Nick Madrigal (tied for 30th) star in that department individually. Bellinger’s got his own past Gold Glove in center as well.

And when speaking to the ability the Cubs have to always find someone to step up in the lineup, right fielder Seiya Suzuki has been the guy for the last handful of weeks. Suzuki posted a 1.006 in August, and in his seven September appearances thus far, Suzuki has produced five doubles and three homers as a part of 13 total hits.

As a recent example to the point, Suzuki racked up four hits and three RBIs in a roller coaster 11-8 win over the Giants on Tuesday. This is the guy who has been spotted anywhere from fifth to eighth in the batting order across the last month.

Arizona seemingly changes form on a dime from the really great team it was in the first half of the year to the really poor team it was in the second half of the year. You never know on an inning-by-inning basis which group you’re going to see, and for the D-backs’ sake, they better hope they get more of the former against a squad that is currently executing at a level that high.

Recent bullpen issues

In a quick relatable tidbit before we go, Chicago’s bullpen is giving fans trust issues lately. A 3-2 loss to the Reds was off two Cincinnati runs in the ninth, and the next day, the same thing happened in a 2-1 defeat. If not for that, the Cubs would be on a nine-game winning streak.

The aforementioned Giants victory featured a three-run sixth inning partially on the bullpen, plus an additional run in the eighth and ninth.

The ERA among Cubs relievers is a modest 3.96 (14th in MLB) and a 1.29 WHIP (15th) is fine but Wrigley will be nervy with a lead over the weekend.

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