It’s a battle of Joe Maddon’s current team versus his former as the (41-41) Chicago Cubs welcome the (43-41) Tampa Bay Rays to Wrigley Field for a short two-game series starting today (2.20pm ET Tuesday).
One of baseball’s youngest franchises (established in 1998), the Rays spent the majority of their first decade of play mired in futility and serving as the bottom feeders in the AL East. 2004 was the first time in Rays’ history the team managed to climb out of the cellar in the division (they finished second to last) but it really wasn’t until Joe Maddon arrived on the scene two years later that the team began to turn things around. Maddon’s Rays lost 90 games over his first two seasons but with the team in the process of building a young homegrown core, this was to be expected. Maddon preached patience with the young players and in 2008, the Rays jumped from last to first in the AL East and reached the World Series. Since that time, the Rays have reached the playoffs three additional times, the last of which came in 2013.
As the Rays adjusted to life without Maddon (they haven’t finished above fourth in the AL East since he left), the Cubs were adjusting to life with Maddon. 108 years of devastation seemed to follow Chicago each and every year and while they had chances, including winning over 100 games several times in the past decade, it wasn’t until Maddon began preaching the same philosophy that worked in Tampa Bay that the team found success. In just his second season with Chicago and with the young core growing into great major league talent, Maddon led the Cubs to break the losing streak and claim their first World Series title in over a century.
Maddon’s managerial style has built both the Rays and Cubs into perennial contenders as he set the foundation for the success of both franchises. This series will mark the first time since he left Tampa Bay following the 2014 season that Maddon will have a chance to face his old team.
By the Numbers: Chicago Cubs
Last week, I previewed the Cubs series against the Washington Nationals, which the two teams ended up splitting. In that preview, I covered the lack of offense efficiency and production that Chicago has had all season so I won’t go into as much detail on that here. What I will note however is that the Cubs scored 15 runs in that four game series, which is still less than four a game but is definitely an improvement from where they had been.
The Cubs are hitting just .237 on the year which is the 29th ranked batting average in all of MLB. That’s about .20 points lower than what the team hit last year. Other numbers down from last year (at this point of the season) for Chicago include runs, RBI, extra base hits and more. The Cubs are well off their pace from their World Series winning campaign and that’s a large part of the reason as to why the team has just a .500 record almost at the midway point of the season.
However, Chicago is still just two games back of the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers, meaning they are still well within catching distance of winning the division. This is mainly because the team’s pitching is still top 10 and is really carrying the offense at this point of the season. Chicago has the seventh best ERA, 4.04 in the MLB and fourth best in the NL. Again, that ERA is off from last year (3.15) but it’s been steady enough to keep Chicago in contention.
By the Numbers: Tampa Bay Rays
For the Rays, it’s a bit of the opposite story as offensively, Tampa Bay has found their swing after the past three years of struggling at the plate.
The Rays are ranked eighth in MLB in runs and hits, seventh in RBI, fourth in total bases, second in home runs and ninth in OBP. Tampa Bay is a strong power hitting team with five players that have at least 10 home runs and a sixth who is sitting on nine. The team also has nine players with 20+ RBI, including Logan Morrison who leads the team in both categories and who is ranked second in the AL in HR and sixth in RBI. The 29-year-old Morrison also ranks in the top-five in walks, slugging and OPS.
From the mound, Tampa Bay has the 11th best ERA (4.18), which is right around the middle of the pack. Where the team excels however is from the bullpen. The Rays have played a lot of close games this year, among the most in baseball and have MLB’s third most saves (26) to show for it. That number is the best in the AL as well.
Pitching Probables, Game 1: (CHI) Jon Lester vs (TB) Chris Archer
Taking the mound for Chicago is Jon Lester, who has had his struggles this year but who is coming off of four straight strong starts. Lester held the Nationals to just one run in his last outing, which adds to his 2.42 ERA and 28 strikeouts over his last 26 innings pitched in the last four games. Only Evan Longoria has 15+ at bats against Lester and he’s mustering just a .211 average in those opportunities.
Lester will be opposed by Chris Archer, who is also coming off a strong start in his last outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In his last three starts, Archer has a 4.50 ERA and has pitched just 18 innings. This will be his second career start against the Cubs, who traded him to the Rays back in 2011.
The biggest thing to watch in a Lester start is the bases because the Cubs’ lefty is among the worst in baseball at keeping people still on the basepaths. Tampa Bay is ranked 13th in stolen bases and has several players who could cause Lester some trouble. If the veteran is able to keep the bases clear however, Chicago should have a relatively easy time getting the victory in Game 1.
Our Preview’s Tampa Bay Rays vs Chicago Cubs Betting Picks & Predictions
The USA-friendly online betting sites have been slow to price all the betting up for this Game 1, with only odds for the moneyline available at the time of writing this preview. As for our betting prediction for this Game 1, we would have taken the Cubs as our pick to cover a maximum of a 2.5 runline deficit on the spread. As it is we’ll keep our advice simple and say to bet on Chicago on the available moneyline @ -145 with either 5Dimes or Bookmaker sportsbooks.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.