CHICAGO -- Congratulations to the Colorado baseball fans who circled this weekend on the calendar months ago, figuring it would be a good time to get a look at Wrigley Field's ivy-covered splendor. You qualify as baseball geniuses.As your bonus for planning well, you will get to see the Cubs
CHICAGO -- Congratulations to the Colorado baseball fans who circled this weekend on the calendar months ago, figuring it would be a good time to get a look at Wrigley Field's ivy-covered splendor. You qualify as baseball geniuses.
As your bonus for planning well, you will get to see the Cubs try to fight their way back into first place against the first-place Rockies as these two must-see teams go at it for four games.
Just like you expected, right?
Matchups like this one help keep baseball fresh. The best stories are often ones that nobody anticipates, like the Rockies outplaying the Dodgers for two months in Bud Black's first season as manager.
Unlike the Cubs, who have been jumping around in the National League Central standings all season, most recently falling out of the lead after Wednesday night's 6-5 loss to the Marlins, it has been a smooth ride for the Rockies. Colorado has led the NL West for 53 of the first 66 days of the season and is 15 games above .500 (38-23). The Rox have never had this many wins at this point in the season.
The Rockies are doing this despite being away from Coors Field more often than they've been home, as they're currently in the midst of a stretch playing 22 of 29 on the road.
Don't worry about whether they can maintain their success in a tough division. There will be time enough for angst later in the summer. For now, Colorado fans should just sit back and enjoy the next four days -- one night game at Wrigley followed by three day games in the warmest temperatures Chicago has seen this year.
Here are five things to watch in the Rockies-Cubs series:
1. Colorado's young starting pitching against Chicago's young hitters
While Theo Epstein targeted run-producing hitters to attack what he saw as a market efficiency, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich identified starting pitching as the best way to make Colorado competitive. He announced his intentions by trading Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto for a package of young pitchers two years ago.
Right-hander Jeff Hoffman, the headliner in the Tulowitzki trade, joins Tyler Chatwood, German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela in working this weekend. Lefty Kyle Freeland, who the Rockies took eighth overall in the 2014 Draft, beat the Indians on Wednesday and won't work again until they've moved on to Pittsburgh.
At 27, Chatwood is the old man of a group that features two 24-year-olds (Hoffman and Freeland) and two 22-year-olds (Senzatela and Marquez). The Cubs' lineup regularly features six or seven players in the 25-and-under group, including 22-year-old rookie center fielder/utility man Ian Happ.
2. The reigning NL MVP Award winner and one of the 2017 front-runners
Kristopher Bryant was one vote short of being a unanimous pick for the NL MVP Award in 2016, when he hit .292 with 39 home runs. Colorado center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been more dynamic than any of the Cubs this season, putting his name alongside the Nationals' Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt in the early NL MVP Award discussion.
Blackmon is hitting .333 with 13 homers, an NL-high eight triples and .985 OPS. His April 11 homer off Jered Weaver was estimated at 458 feet by Statcast™, matching one from Mark Reynolds as the Rockies' longest this season. Bryant, who has been the most productive Cub, is hitting .268 with 13 homers and a .920 OPS.
3. The best left sides around
Maybe you can find one or two shortstop-third base combinations that compare to these two, but there aren't any that are better.
Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado -- himself a good bet to wind up in the NL MVP Award talk -- and power-hitting shortstop Trevor Story have been a big part of the Rockies' rise. Bryant and Addison Russell were keys for the Cubs' ending their 108-year drought last November.
Russell hasn't yet picked up where he left off in 2016, but he contributes with his glove while waiting for his bat to heat up (.209 with a .291 on-base percentage and three homers), and manager Joe Maddon feels just fine when Javier Baez is at short. Like Russell, Story (.217/.315/.429) hasn't gotten locked in at the plate, but he is still on pace for 20-plus home runs.
4. The Cub who got away
DJ LeMahieu, sent to Colorado alongside Tyler Colvin for third baseman Ian Stewart, is a subject of conversation every time he visits regularly. The defending NL batting champ played 37 games for manager Mike Quade in 2011, but Epstein wasn't convinced LeMahieu could be more than a utility player.
LeMahieu has thrived with the Rockies, winning a Gold Glove at second base in 2014, earning a trip to the All-Star Game in '15 and hitting .348 to earn some NL MVP Award votes last season. He's hitting .277 with a .703 OPS this season, a marked drop from last season. Will this be the weekend LeMahieu gets it going?
5. Doors slamming shut
Maddon will manage the NL All-Star team on July 11 in Miami, and it seems a safe bet that he'll hand the ball to the Cubs' Wade Davis if there's a ninth-inning lead to protect. Favoritism will not play into that decision, as Davis has been dominant after being acquired from the Royals to replace the departed Albertin Chapman.
But there's an argument to be made for one of Davis' former teammates, Greg Holland. The guy who closed games for Kansas City in the 2014 World Series and ceded the closer's role to Davis in '15 has proven to be the free-agent steal of the year. Holland is leading the Major Leagues with 21 saves, including 11 in April.
Word of advice to both teams: Don't wait till the last minute to score runs this weekend.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.