Chicago Cubs Preview: Cubs open 2018 home schedule against Pirates

Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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After trading away key pieces this winter, the Pittsburgh Pirates seemed destined for a rebuild. In first place, they face the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates dealt away two franchise cornerstones this offseason, the Chicago Cubs’ path to another division title seemed clearer than ever. With Gerrit Cole in Houston and Andrew McCutchen to the Giants, the Bucs appeared ready to rebuild for the next generation.

Pittsburgh (7-2) comes to Wrigley Field Monday to open a three-game set against the reigning division champs. Dominant starting pitching and timely hitting propelled the Pirates to one of their best starts in years – while the Cubs have struggled to find their footing at times.

The Pirates rank second in the National League with a .283 team average and .814 OPS through their first nine games. Who leads the club offensively? Third baseman Colin Moran – a cornerstone piece of the Cole deal. The young infielder carries a .345 average and 8 RBI into Monday afternoon’s opener.

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Josh Harrison and Josh Bell have also swung a hot stick early, both batting north of .330 here in the second week of April. Don’t sleep on that half of the Pittsburgh infield by any means.

Pitching takes center stage

Pitching-wise, Ivan Nova gets the ball in the opener, looking to join his rotation mates and pick up his first win. In a pair of starts, the right-hander has allowed seven earned runs across 10 1/3 innings of work. Tyler Chatwood, who tossed six innings his first time out, will look to limit his walks in his Wrigley Field debut.

Steven Brault squares off against Jon Lester on Wednesday (after a scheduled off-day Tuesday) in a matchup of lefties. Lester comes off his best start of the year after a shaking Opening Day outing. Last year at Wrigley, the southpaw put up a 4.27 ERA at Wrigley, averaging north of nine punchouts per nine.

The finale sees Kyle Hendricks battle Trevor Williams, who has been nothing short of dominant in his first outings of the season. On April 1, he turned in six scoreless frames and followed that with a two-run allowed outing in which he allowed 10 hits, but limited the damage. Hendricks, meanwhile, cruised his last time out – until surrendering a pair of two-run home runs in the fifth.

Cubs have some momentum coming in

Chicago (5-4)  hopes to build off their recent series against the Brewers. The Cubs won three of four, thanks to timely hitting and continued dominance from the bullpen. Milwaukee did them plenty of favors, playing shaky defense, but the bats delivered when they needed to.

As for the Chicago offense, watch out for Ben Zobrist. Over the last seven games, the veteran is batting .357 with a 1.009 OPS – including his first homer of the year. Filling in for Anthony Rizzo, Victor Caratini seems more comfortable than ever in the box and Willson Contreras continues to drive the ball all over the yard.

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One other factor in this series? The weather. Chicago awoke Monday coated with snow and cold temperatures. Neither of these teams are any stranger to such playing conditions, but their impact on the game could be notable.