Opposite dugout: Cubs set to throw solid rotation, strong bullpen at Nats in Chicago

cubs-logo.jpgManager: Rick Renteria, first year
Record: 32-44
Last 10 games: 5-5
Who to watch: 1B Anthony Rizzo (.284/.399/.524, 17 HR, 44 RBIs, 52 R); SS Starlin Castro (.287/.333/.479, 23 doubles, 11 HR, 45 RBIs); RHP Jeff Samardzija (2-6, 2.53 ERA, 1.19 WHIP); RHP Jason Hammel (6-5, 2.99 ERA, 1.02 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats (2013): 3-4, 36 runs scored, 31 runs allowed

Pitching probables
June 26: Travis Wood vs. Doug Fister, 8 p.m., MASN HD
June 27: Jason Hammel vs. Tanner Roark, 4 p.m., MASN HD
June 28 (Game 1): Dallas Beeler vs. Gio Gonzalez, 1 p.m., MASN HD
June 28 (Game 2): Jeff Samardzija vs. Blake Treinen, 7 p.m., FOX

Series breakdown
The Nationals head to Wrigley Field for an unconventional four-game series with an opportunity to string some wins together and add to their division lead by taking advantage of a weaker opponent.

Or do they?

It entirely depends on which Cubs team shows up this weekend, when the two clubs play a scheduled doubleheader Saturday with no game Sunday.

The National League Central cellar-dwellers have lost four of their last five games and been outscored 20-13 in the process. But before that, the Cubs had gone 11-6 over their last 17 games, outscoring opponents 69-57.

So which team will the Nats see?

The Cubs will send three of their top four starters to the mound in the series, with 25-year-old right-hander Dallas Beeler making his major league debut in the fourth game.

While the Nats will miss the Cubs’ hottest pitcher (right-hander Jake Arrieta, owner of a 2.05 ERA in 10 starts), they will face right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, and left-hander Travis Wood.

Samardzija has been Chicago’s best starter overall this year, posting a 2.53 ERA with only a 2-6 record to show for it. He did go through a brief rough stretch earlier this month when he scuffled to a 7.88 ERA over three starts. But Samardzija has since rebounded to string together two straight quality starts, allowing one earned run in his last 12 innings.

He will face rookie Blake Treinen in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader.

Hammel has also had an impressive season, going 6-5 with a 2.99 ERA. The veteran starter has been consistently solid for the Cubs this season, allowing more than three runs just three times in 15 starts and more than four runs only once.

Hammel goes head-to-head with right-hander Tanner Roark on Friday in perhaps the featured pitching matchup of the series.

In part because of those two, pitching hasn’t been a major issue for Chicago this season, as the club ranks seventh in the NL with a 3.56 team ERA and ninth with a 3.78 starters’ ERA.

But the Cubs’ strength has been their bullpen. They rank fourth in the NL with a 3.18 relievers’ ERA.

Right-hander Neil Ramirez (1.35 ERA in 22 appearances), left-hander James Russell (2.05 ERA in 32 appearances), lefty Wesley Wright (2.57 ERA in 27 appearances) and righty Brian Schlitter (2.83 ERA in 35 appearances) have been the bullpen’s top performers.

Runs have been hard to come by pretty much all year for the Cubs, even during their recent run of improved play when they averaged just a hair over four runs per game.

Overall this season, they rank 13th in the NL with 289 runs and 14th with a .231 average and a .665 team OPS. But they are tied for eighth with 68 homers.

Only two regulars have an OPS over .800 - first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.923) and shortstop Starlin Castro (.812).

Rizzo leads the team with 17 homers and ranks second with 44 RBIs. Castro leads the team with 45 RBIs and 23 doubles while ranking second with 11 homers. Third baseman Mike Olt has added 10 homers and 25 RBIs, but is batting .145 in 58 games.

As long as the top pitching staff in baseball can keep the Cubs’ bats quiet, the matchup between the Nats lineup and the Chicago pitching staff will be the key one to watch. But Washington will be in for a challenge this weekend with two strong starters and one of the NL’s top bullpens awaiting.

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