For the Chicago Cubs, one of the benefits of leading the National League and being way over .500 is a lack of tension over Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline.
Although there is speculation that Chicago (61-44) might seek a reliever, it opens a two-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park a few hours after the deadline with its sights on solidifying its hold on the NL Central and honing its game.
The Cubs maintain a slim lead over Milwaukee in the NL Central, but they have already added starter Cole Hamels — who is scheduled to make his Chicago debut Wednesday, after All-Star Jon Lester‘s start Tuesday — and reliever Jesse Chavez this month.
“We’ve got Jon (Lester) up next and, hopefully, he can keep this momentum,” said Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who struck out eight in seven innings Sunday of a 5-2 victory over the third-place St. Louis Cardinals.
“With (Cole) Hamels, I think he’ll bring a lot of energy just seeing something new out there. I think he’ll lift all of us up a little bit. We can all learn from him; he’s been around. I’m really excited to watch him throw on Wednesday. Hopefully, these last two months we can rattle off some good starts.”
Chicago is a pedestrian 6-6 since the All-Star break, in contrast to what the Pirates have been doing.
Pittsburgh (55-52) has won 15 of its past 19 games to climb back into the wild-card race, not to mention at least being in the discussion in the division if the winning continues.
The Pirates are third in the division, seven games behind the Cubs.
“It’s good. It’s a good time to go at them right now,” Pittsburgh right-hander Joe Musgrove said. “We’re playing the best ball we have all year. Things are banging on all cylinders. The chemistry’s really good in here. The energy’s high. I don’t think there’s a better time to face them than right now.
“We know what we have here, and you see the run we went on the last two weeks. We know we’re capable of putting together good games and playing good baseball.”
After its two-game set with Chicago, Pittsburgh has a three-game weekend series against fourth-place St. Louis at PNC Park — giving the Pirates five divisional games directly after the trade deadline to perhaps make a statement. The Pirates’ surge has allowed them to leapfrog the Cardinals and, before Monday’s games, sit four games out in the wild-card race.
“We want to respect that we’re in a playoff hunt,” general manager Neal Huntington said about weighing any moves the Pirates make for the rest of this season vs. the future.
Pittsburgh and Chicago were off Monday.
The Pirates will send right-hander Jameson Taillon (7-7, 3.73 ERA) against Lester (12-3, 3.06) on Tuesday.
Taillon’s record belies the fact that he has allowed three earned runs or less in 11 straight starts and in 18 of his 21 starts this season. He is 2-3 with a 5.06 ERA in five career starts against the Cubs.
Chicago is 17-4 in Lester’s 21 starts. The left-hander is 2-0 with a 4.00 ERA in three starts this season against Pittsburgh.