CHICAGO -- Are you ready to roll? You better be.There's no easing your way back into the baseball season. The Rangers and Cubs are set to begin the second half of the 2016 season with a weekend series that shows why Interleague Play works as well now as it did
CHICAGO -- Are you ready to roll? You better be.
There's no easing your way back into the baseball season. The Rangers and Cubs are set to begin the second half of the 2016 season with a weekend series that shows why Interleague Play works as well now as it did in 1997, when it was instituted.
They're two of the best teams in the league and they're meeting at Wrigley Field, with ongoing attempts to upgrade their rosters adding to the intrigue. No wonder Texas fans are flocking to Chicago in large numbers.
They'll appreciate the forecasted high temperatures in the 70s on Friday and Saturday almost as much as they will having Yu Darvish back from the disabled list.
This series won't settle anything, of course, but with Adrián Beltré and the Rangers in the visitors' dugout and Kris Bryant and the Cubs across the field, we've got a meeting of teams that could see each again in late October, with a lot more than bragging rights on the line.
The Rangers have never won a championship; the Cubs last won one in 1908. But this year, they might be the best teams in their respective leagues, so although it's nontraditional, it is a possible World Series preview.
Isn't that great?
As a bonus, this three-game series starts with a 1:20 p.m. CT game on Friday. The only way the stage could be set any better is if both teams' aces were working, but Cole Hamels and Jake Arrieta are getting a little extra time to recover from their trip to Petco Park for Tuesday's All-Star Game.
Hamels is scheduled to pitch on Sunday, and barring a change, the Rangers won't see Arrieta, who is expected to get the weekend off to prepare for a start against the Mets.
But the Rangers will see right-hander Kyle Hendricks, whom Texas general manager Jon Daniels traded to the Cubs for Ryan Dempster in 2012. Along with Arrieta and Anthony Rizzo, Hendricks is an example of how president of baseball operations Theo Epstein rebuilt the Cubs ahead of schedule -- not that the Rangers have suffered without him.
The Cubs and Rangers have been on almost identical trajectories for almost a year. Both were essentially undercover at the All-Star break last season, quietly building toward promising futures, and emerged at the same time, rolling into the 2015 postseason and creating the momentum that carried them to double-digit division leads in June.
Jeff Banister's Rangers and Joe Maddon's Cubs have been baseball's winningest teams since July 29 of last year, combining for a 193-111 record. That's a .635 winning percentage, which projects to 103 wins over 162 games.
Teams that win 100-plus games are powerhouses.
Epstein and Daniels have flipped the script for their respective franchises, building deep organizations through the MLB Draft and international signings. These teams aren't going away.
That doesn't mean they aren't subject to the ups and downs that are universal in baseball and/or facing threats from strong division rivals in the Astros, Cardinals and Pirates. Nothing happens easily in baseball, even when teams are well constructed and managed.
That's one of the beauties of the sport.
Both the Cubs and Rangers head into the weekend having taken on water recently.
The Rangers were 51-27 with a 10-game lead over the Mariners in the AL West on June 28, but they have won only three of their past 12 games. A breakdown in the rotation overworked the bullpen badly, leading to blowout losses to the Twins and Red Sox, and sending the bullpen ERA soaring to 5.10, last in the AL.
For seven straight games, a Texas starting pitcher didn't last five innings, allowing Seattle to climb within 5 1/2 games of first place. This collapse followed Colby Lewis and Derek Holland going on the disabled list, so it's fair to say that Darvish's return on Saturday will be a big event.
Darvish, who missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, was activated on May 28, but he lasted only three starts before his shoulder began to bother him. He returned to the DL after a start on June 8. Darvish will be closely watched on Saturday, as the Rangers' hope of running the table in October seems heavily dependent on entering the postseason with Hamels-Darvish serving as one of the AL's top 1-2 combos.
Hamels cut his chin in a hotel room fall in San Diego, but he threw a scoreless inning in the All-Star Game. His start on Sunday will be his first at Wrigley since he no-hit the Cubs last July 25 as a member of the Phillies. The Rangers landed Hamels in a Deadline deal six days later, and he's been a difference-maker for Texas, going 16-3 with a 3.40 ERA in 30 starts.
The Cubs weren't willing to give up any of their top prospects to land Hamels, and have operated just fine with the 1-2 combination of All-Stars Arrieta and Jon Lester. They raced out to 25-6 start and led the NL Central by 12 1/2 games on June 19. They return from the All-Star break with a great chance to show that a recent 6-15 stretch was more a blip on the radar screen than a real cause for concern.
Despite injuries to Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler, the Cubs have outscored every team other than the Red Sox, averaging 5.3 runs per game. They are third in the NL in home runs, with 120, including an NL-high 25 by Bryant. Rizzo has 21 and leads the NL with a 1.006 OPS.
But Maddon considers starting pitching the biggest reason his Cubs ran away from the Cardinals and Pirates, and it is that rotation that has come back to earth. Cubs starters were so good early that they still lead the NL with a 3.09 ERA, but a 6.39 ERA in the past 21 games has raised eyebrows about Arrieta, Lester, John Lackey and Jason Hammel.
Getting Arrieta right is job No. 1 for Maddon and pitching coach Chris Bosio. Arrieta went 9-0 with a 1.56 ERA at the end of May, but he has gone 3-4 with a 4.81 ERA in his past seven starts. The Cubs hope that the equivalent of a skipped start will get him back on track. He didn't pitch in the All-Star Game and will have at least nine days' rest between outings if he is held out of the weekend series.
Both Epstein and Daniels are busy in trade talks these days. They're looking for the same commodity -- pitching -- and could wind up bidding against each other for the top arms on the market.
Daniels showed with the Hamels acquisition that he's willing to pay heavily for an upgrade. Epstein has thus far held on to his biggest chips, but that could change.
Somebody will win the World Series in October, and it's hard to find two teams more driven to be the last team standing than the Rangers and Cubs. It's going to be a ton of fun to see them at Wrigley Field this weekend. You'll want to file away your memories if it's not the only time they play each other in 2016.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.