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CHICAGO CUBS (13-10) at ST LOUIS CARDINALS (18-6)
The much improved Chicago Cubs head to St. Louis to begin a series against their NL Central rivals, the Cardinals on Monday night.
The rebuilding is nearly complete for the Cubs and is evidenced by their improved play this year as theyve won five of their past eight games coming into this one. Their pitching was what won a majority of those games with opponents averaging 1.4 runs per game in those five victories. They were unable to get a series win when they hosted the Brewers over the weekend, though, losing 2-of-3 games as the offense managed a meager five runs in the three-game set. Chicago finished it with a 5-3 loss on Sunday where they were just 2-for-10 with RISP and saw the bullpen give up the lead in the eighth inning. Power-hitting 1B Anthony Rizzo (.321) continues to develop his game and has six extra-base hits over his past nine games with seven runs over that period. On the other side of the diamond, St. Louis continues its dominance of the NL Central while riding a six-game winning streak coming into this contest and is coming off a sweep of the Pirates over the weekend as all three of the games went into extra innings and were one-run contests. They completed the sweep on Sunday afternoon in a 3-2 contest where they saw 2B Kolten Wong (.294) hit a walk-off homer in the 14th frame. Also hitting a homer was 3B Matt Carpenter (.365) who has seven extra-base hits, six multi-hit games and nine runs scored in the past 10 times out. The pitching matchup will see LHP Travis Wood (2-1, 3.04 ERA) of the Cubs go against 23-year-old RHP Carlos Martinez (3-0, 1.73 ERA) for the host Cardinals. Chicago has performed well when on the road this year with a record of 6-3 as they will be facing a St. Louis team which is a tremendous 11-2 at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals have managed a 23-17 (.575) record in this matchup since the start of the 2013 campaign and are 13-7 when playing at home in that time. Each team earned a shutout win in the two games over the first series of this year as the Cubs had a meager five hits. Trends show that Chicago is 88-76 (.537) in Monday road games since 1997 as they are a putrid 9-29 (.237) after having won five or six of their past seven games in the past three seasons. Infielders 3B Mike Olt (Wrist) and 2B Tommy La Stella (Ribs) continue to be on the DL for the Cubs as OFs Randal Grichuk (Back) and Tommy Pham (Quad) are out for St. Louis.
Wood has rebounded from a poor 2014 campaign, when he posted a 5.03 ERA, to put up four consecutive outings where hes allowed three or fewer runs to start out the new year. Not usually known has a strikeout pitcher; Wood has been able to mow down batters at an impressive rate (9.9 K/9) in 2015 and has also shown career-best control (2.3 BB/9) while giving up his usual large amount of homers (1.1 HR/9) as he only gets batters to hit the ball on the ground 31percent of the time. The lefty has had little success when facing the Cardinals in his career, going 5-6 (7-9 team record) with a 5.38 ERA (1.49 WHIP) as he allowed 21 runs (16 ER) in his last four starts against them (21.2 IP). Hes had a lot of issues against both OF Matt Holliday (15-for-40, 4 doubles, 4 HR, 9 RBI) and C Yadier Molina (15-for-38, 4 doubles, 3 HR, 13 RBI) while 1B Matt Adams (3-for-13, 2 K) and 3B Matt Carpenter (8-for-30, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 6 K) have not had quite as much success. The bullpen for the Cubs has been solid, going 5-3 with a 3.33 ERA (1.15 WHIP) but is a mere 5-for-9 in save chances. Despite the four blown saves, closer Hector Rondon (1.64 ERA, 5 saves) has been great with just one of those as he owns an 11:1 K/BB ratio in 11 appearances (11 IP).
Martinez will be a huge piece of this ballclub moving forward as the team leans on him heavily with Adam Wainwright out for the year. Hes looked good in his short career thus far, posting a 3.63 ERA (1.44 WHIP) over 62 innings as a starter and has struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings in that period. So far this year, the youngster has put up four consecutive quality starts and has given up a miniscule 17 hits in his 26 innings on the mound. He has yet to face Chicago as a starter, but owns a solid 2.61 ERA (1.44 WHIP) when facing them over 10.1 frames out of the bullpen. The batters on the Cubs have combined to go a very poor 4-for-23 (.174) with eight strikeouts as just one of those balls has gone for extra bases. The relievers for St. Louis are once again one of the best and they currently are 7-2 with a 1.51 ERA (1.06 WHIP) while successfully saving 11-of-13 contests. Trevor Rosenthal (1.42 ERA, 8 saves) has done a great job in the closers role once again and has 16 strikeouts with seven hits allowed in 12.2 innings.
Several could be 'designated' an All-Star
More often than not, it seems that All-Star voting decisions are a matter of priorities, as much as performance. When fans click that button or punch that hole, they're making a statement as to what they value and what they want to see in the Midsummer Classic.
The decision at designated hitter on the American League ballot this year exemplifies this balance perfectly. Do you side with the sentimental favorites, the veterans beloved by fans? In short, the stars? Or do you want the guys putting up the best numbers, even if their names aren't quite as big?
In each category, there are multiple candidates. Rather than one or even two clear favorites, at least five players have a claim to some level of consideration when fans sit down to fill out their ballots.
From the "beloved older dudes" category, Lance Berkman, David Ortiz and Travis Hafner are all putting up very nice numbers. The gentlemen on the near side of 30, Mark Trumbo and Mark Reynolds, are outperforming their elders and have also played a little bit more.
It really is a question of priorities, with several right answers.
Of the bunch, Ortiz is the biggest star, an outsized personality and a bona fide folk hero in Boston. And with the numbers he's put up since returning from the disabled list, he'd be a shoo-in if he'd played more than 17 games. "Big Papi" had a 27-game hitting streak, dating back to last season, come to an end on Wednesday night, and was hitting .381 with four home runs and a ridiculous 17 RBIs in 63 at-bats.
He's also practically the definition of a star. Ortiz, 37, is one of the game's most recognizable faces, and an eight-time All-Star selection. If your emphasis is on the word "star" in All-Star Game, Ortiz is likely your man.
That is, unless you prefer another longtime prolific producer and familiar face. Berkman, also 37, is enjoying yet another comeback, this time with the Rangers. He's a six-time All-Star who has started at three positions, though never at DH. The "Big Puma" isn't putting up huge power numbers, but he's hitting .297, getting on base at a .434 clip and, of course, livening up the clubhouse as he always has.
There's also the question of how much longer Berkman will stick around. He may not be on a level with someone like Chipper Jones or Cal Ripken Jr., but he's had an awfully fine career, and if this is his last year, it would be appropriate for him to get one more trip to the All-Star Game.
Hafner? Well, he almost certainly counts as the biggest surprise of the bunch, and his value to a beat-up Yankees team can scarcely be overstated. Long a favorite in Cleveland, his first year in New York has been tremendous. He has a .284/.408/.568 line, has launched six home runs and driven in 18 runs. The knock on Hafner is that he's been a platoon player, scarcely facing left-handed pitching and struggling when he does.
He's got more at-bats than Ortiz, but the Sox slugger is catching up because he's playing just about every day, now that he's back in shape. Hafner is probably the longest shot of this bunch, but there are many Yankees fans out there and he is having a fine year.
Still, if you're the kind of voter who looks at the current year's performance, you're going to skip the venerable vets and move to a couple of younger options. Trumbo has followed up his breakout 2012 with an excellent start to '13. Hitting in a very difficult ballpark, he posted a .291/.358/.552 line entering Thursday night's game, with nine homers and 23 RBIs.
He's a raw-power freak, the kind of guy that it's fun not only to see in the All-Star Game, but in the Home Run Derby. And it's the second straight year he's put up big numbers, which argues that he's more than just somebody having a hot month.
Yet even Trumbo is trumped this year by Reynolds, the engine driving the new-look Indians. After hitting .213 over the past three seasons, Reynolds is complementing his usual power production with some singles. He's hitting what would be a career-best .291, leads the AL with 11 home runs, and he leads this group with 29 RBIs.
On a team that urgently needed an influx of offense, Reynolds has helped provide it, propelling Cleveland into contention in a newly competitive AL Central. He's never been an All-Star, but if you go based on this year only, it's hard to argue he shouldn't be one for the first time in '13.
But still, we go back to the initial point. Not everyone is going to vote based strictly on a few weeks of performance. There's a case for Trumbo, having nearly as good a year, but more established. There's a case for Ortiz to take his expected place in the lineup, for Berkman to get one more chance, and for Hafner to be recognized for the first time.
It's all up to you, the voter, to decide.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.