Cubs, White Sox to square off in a series that means something

Baseball is good in Chicago. It feels weird, but the 16-8 Cubs and 15-11 White Sox collide this weekend with real stakes on the line. Both sides stand to benefit or fall behind from this weekend instead of one team trying to spoil the other’s postseason chances. This year, both teams may look back and circle this weekend as a critical junction in the year, despite it still being interleague play.

The White Sox, to this point, have gone through bursts of highs and lows, but at this moment in time, they are in a high. In fact, they look as good as they have all year, coming off a sweep of the Detroit Tigers that added four more tallies in the win column. They’ve now won five in a row as a complete team, scoring 38 runs and allowing 11, capped off by a dominant Lucas Giolito outing on Thursday in which he threw seven shutout innings and 13 strikeouts while looking comfortable and in control.

Tim Anderson, for lack of a better word, has been unstoppable at the plate. He’s put up a slash line .476/.522./1.095. You read that right, that last number is not OPS. It’s his slugging. He’s hit four home runs in a double during the White Sox’ win streak and struck out only three times in 23 plate appearances. He brings the energy to their clubhouse and has been the heart and soul of the White Sox for the past two seasons, while also becoming one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball, hitting to a .484 wOBA out of the top of the lineup. He also destroys lefties, hitting an impossible .650 against them with five home runs in 20 at-bats. It just so happens he’ll face one tonight in Jon Lester.

White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito

Luis Robert’s made an impact with a 105 wRC+ and Eloy Jiménez’s is at 130. Jiménez may even be due for positive regression with his .283 BABIP. Fans may remember what Jiménez did to the team that signed him as an international free agent; he hit two home runs in four games against the Cubs in 2019, including a dramatic go-ahead home run in the top of the 9th inning off Pedro Strop.

Despite mounting injuries to key players like Reynaldo López, Carlos Rodón, Aaron Bummer and Nick Madrigal, the White Sox have ventured on. They’re top-10 in baseball in relievers’ ERA at 3.81 and have gotten masterful performances from the likes of Evan Marshall, Matt Foster and Alex Colomé. The Sox may have made the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians sweat this week, whom they are two-and-a-half and two games back of in the AL Central, respectively.

The Cubs, after getting swept in four games by the Milwaukee Brewers, got back on track against the St. Louis Cardinals, picking up three wins in their four-game series earlier in the week. They have a strong four-game lead in their division at 16-8, riding dominant starting pitching to this point in the season. Yu Darvish has been lights-out and, after striking out seven and allowing one earned run in six innings on Tuesday, has yet to allow one earned run in his last four starts. He’s struck out 34 batters in 30 innings pitched, and has remained in control with a 4.1% walk rate. Darvish is one of the best pitchers in baseball right now and could be exactly what the Cubs need in the postseason.

Jon Lester, who gets the start tonight, also has been brilliant this year, with a 2.74 ERA despite a career-low K/9, indicating he’s transitioning to a new phase of his career as a ground-ball pitcher. Well, he picked the right team to make that transition with, as the Cubs are tied for the ninth-fewest errors in baseball and have the seventh-highest fielding percentage.

Chicago Cubs manager David Ross

The best bat in their lineup has easily been Ian Happ, whose .456 wOBA is fifth in baseball. He’s homered six times this year and has been a fixture in the Cubs’ lineup, taking over as the team’s everyday centerfielder, their first since Dexter Fowler. His .356 ISO shows that he’s discovered his potential as a hitter, and he leads the Cubs in almost every hitting stat.

And while the bullpen was, to put it mildly, dysfunctional at the start of the year, it’s since come together. Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick have emerged as Ross’s go-to closer options as the team tries to figure out what’s wrong with Craig Kimbrel, but even he has shown signs of improvement by stringing together three-straight appearances of no-run ball while striking out seven and walking one.

Tonight will feature a matchup of lefties in Dallas Keuchel and Jon Lester, two guys who have been instrumental in sustaining their rotations. Kris Bryant and Yoán Moncada are both out of their team’s lineups, but their dips in production this season suggest that their absences may not be a huge deal at the moment. It’s been a while since we heard a radio hit like we did today, when Anderson bristled some Twitter user’s feathers by saying to the McNeil & Parkins Show on 670 the Score, “They’re just another team as well. They just happen to be across town. They’re human too, man. They put their pants on just like we do. Tonight is the night to show who has the bigger pants.”

It’s the kind of banter that simply hasn’t been around Chicago baseball. But this year, both teams are for real, and by Monday, baseball supremacy in Chicago will belong either to the team that’s held it, or to the team coming to grab it.