The 2013 version of the Cubs is a young team with intriguing talent, despite a 35-45 record good for fourth place in the National League central. They will be the third-straight team from that division the A's play after winning the weekend set against the Cardinals.
The A's are suddenly in a groove again having four of five and will look to build steam heading into the final road trip before the All-Star break. They fly to Kansas City after Thursday's game for three against the Royals and then head to Pittsburgh for three more with the Pirates, owners of baseball's best record.
The first half ends with a series in Oakland against the Red Sox in what will be a match up of American League contenders.
Although it was just one game of 162, Sunday's win was paramount for the A's considering how things went down. Starter Tommy Milone wasn't great and Coco Crisp left with back spasms, but Oakland found a way to outlast one of the toughest teams in the game thanks to clutch hitting and defense. Time and again, these Athletics pull out wins that prove 2012 wasn't an aberration while Bob Melvin continues to work like he's printing money in his clubhouse office.
There are still question marks, however. What will the back end of the rotation look like in the season's second half? At what point do Yoenis Cespedes' struggles become more than a blip on the radar?
The book appears to be out on the A's left fielder as he continues to chase breaking pitches out of the strike zone. But more worrisome than his .276 on-base clip over the last month has been his inability to adjust at the plate like he did in his rookie season. The Athletics are going to need Cespedes to be the constant in the lineup if Josh Donaldson, Crisp and others begin to come back to earth like the law of averages suggests they will.
Although the issue won't come up until Saturday, the team's fifth-starter situation remains up in the air after Dan Straily struggled in his first start with Sacramento since his June 23 demotion. Combined with his last two major league outings, Straily has now given up 14 runs in his last 14 innings. Oakland has to be considering other options at this point, leaving top starting prospect Sonny Gray as the de facto option.
The Cubs come to town having struggled for a majority of the season, but have won six of nine and have played better than their overall record would indicate. Take away a portion of the team's 16 blown saves and the team could find itself much closer to .500.
Generally, the Cubs are a team that offers some punch in the lineup but struggles to get on base. They are third in baseball in doubles but are near the bottom with just a .299 team on-base percentage.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo has become the team's most recognizable player, leading in homers, RBIs and runs scored at just 23-years-old. But the Cubs' most talented player Starlin Castro has struggled with just a .233/.266/.328 slash line and is coming off a terrible June when he hit just .167/.204/.250. Former Giant Nate Schierholtz has been Chicago's most consistent performer leading the club with an 872 OPS registering 11 home runs and 19 doubles.
The series starts Tuesday night when A.J. Griffin (6-6, 3.56 ERA) starts for the A's. Scott Feldman was originally slated to start for the Cubs, but he has reportedly been traded to Baltimore for a package including Jake Arrietta and Pedro Strop. Lefty Chris Rusin will take his place and make his first start of 2013. Rusin struggled in 2012 posting a 6.37 ERA in seven starts. But he's thrown very well over the last two months with Triple-A Iowa allowing a 2.60 ERA and a 49:12 K:BB ratio in 12 starts.
Griffin is coming off the first complete-game shutout of his career, when he baffled the Reds who had just two hits against the right-hander. It was the first time in five games the A's had won a game in which Griffin was the starter.
Thanks to three off days over the last week, Griffin will pitching on five days' rest for the second-straight time and will look to win back-to-back starts for the first time since early April when he earned victories in his first two outings of the season.
Wednesday's game will feature Matt Garza (3-1, 3.83) and Bartolo Colon (11-2, 2.79). Garza has been outstanding in his last three appearances, allowing just two earned runs in 22 innings. He's only made eight starts this year after starting the season shelved with a shoulder strain incurred during the offseason. The 29-year-old appears healthy and could be auditioning for contending teams looking for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline.
At 40, Colon is enjoying the best stretch of his 16-year career, having won his last eight starts combining for a 1.37 ERA over that span. He pitched eight innings in his last two outings while continuing to make his case to represent the A's in New York in the All-Star game. His 4.69 K:BB ratio is far and away the best of his career, including his Cy Young season in 2005 when it was 3.65.
The series concludes Thursday afternoon with Jarrod Parker (6-6, 4.11) scheduled to go against Travis Wood (5-6, 2.85). Parker had to leave his last start early Saturday against the Cardinals after his hamstring seized up on him in the fourth inning. His status for this start is to be determined depending on his bullpen session he's scheduled to throw before Tuesday's game.
Parker had lowered his ERA in each of his last 11 starts, going 5-2 with a 2.78 ERA, lowering his season mark from 7.36 to 4.11. If he can't go, Gray could get the call a little bit early, who last pitched June 27.
Hitters have hit just .195/.250/.331 against Wood in five starts since June 5. The 26-year-old has been very good against lefties allowing just 11 hits in 90 at-bats (.122). Wood is having his best season in the majors, which could be aided by his .218 BABIP as indicated by his 4.38 SIERA.