(Updated: UPDATES Cubs lead in the division in the fifth sentence)
The Chicago Cubs paced the majors in ERA during their world championship season in 2016, and that same kind of pitching is helping the National League Central leaders begin to pull away from the pack in the division. The Cubs aim to match their season-high winning streak of six games Saturday when they host the third of four contests with the Atlanta Braves.
John Lackey and three relievers tossed a four-hit shutout Friday to help Chicago remain undefeated with two games left on its seven-game homestand - a stretch during which it has outscored the opposition 35-7 and given up no more than three runs in any contest. “If we continue to pitch this well, we can fill it in on the field. The starting pitching is trending in the right direction at the right time,” manager Joe Maddon said of the Cubs, who have recorded a staff ERA of 3.67 since the All-Star break after posting a 3.15 mark last season. Chicago remained 3 1/2 games ahead of second-place Milwaukee in the NL Central following Friday’s triumph while Atlanta lost for the 16th time in its last 24 outings. After battling the reigning World Series champions to a draw in six contests last year, the Braves have been outscored 25-8 while dropping all five meetings in 2017.
TV: 2:20 p.m. ET, FSN South (Atlanta), CSN Chicago
PITCHING MATCHUP: Braves RH Lucas Sims (2-4, 4.41 ERA) vs. Cubs LH Jon Lester (8-7, 4.37)
Sims recorded the longest outing of his six-start career in a loss at Philadelphia on Monday, yielding four runs on eight hits and striking out seven across 6 1/3 innings. The performance was a slight step back for the 23-year-old, who notched back-to-back wins against Seattle and Colorado while giving up a total of two runs in 11 frames over his previous two outings. Sims will try to improve on his 1-2 record and 5.40 ERA in three road starts as he faces the Cubs for the first time.
Lester is slated to make his first start after a two-week stint on the disabled list with left shoulder fatigue following a 1 2/3-inning outing against Cincinnati on Aug. 17 in which he was roughed up for nine runs (seven earned). The four-time All-Star escaped with a no-decision in that outing but is winless over his last four turns and has already yielded 20 homers - one shy of his total from 2016. Lester dominated the Braves to a win at Atlanta on July 17, allowing one run on three hits across seven innings.
1. Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo is three RBIs shy of becoming the fourth player in franchise history to amass three seasons with 30 doubles, 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
2. After posting the second-best record in the NL from June 1-July 16 (23-16), the Braves are a NL-worst 14-29 since.
3. Chicago has won eight in a row at home, matching its best such run of the season.
PREDICTION: Cubs 4, Braves 2