Chicago Cubs Lineup (9/6/21): Schwindel Bats Second, Contreras Cleanup, Steele Starting

The Cubs have won a six-pack of games, which is fitting after Sunday’s drunken affair that saw them combine with the Pirates for three go-ahead grand slams. The Reds have been stumbling of late, losing six of 10 to fall out of the second Wild Card spot, so they are hoping to take advantage of a potential hangover on the North Side.

Rafael Ortega is once again in center and Frank Schwindel is at first to set the tone this afternoon. Then it’s Ian Happ in left, Willson Contreras behind the plate, and Patrick Wisdom at third. Jason Heyward is in right, Matt Duffy is at second, and Sergio Alcántara finishes up at short.

Justin Steele will try to build off of his most recent start, a win in which he went five shutout innings on the strength of increased fastball usage. Steele’s slider wasn’t working well, but he threw more curveballs than usual to balance things out as he held the Twins at bay. That kind of pitchability will help keep him in the rotation long-term.

Going for the Reds is frequent nemesis Sonny Gray, who carved the Cubs up in their previous meeting back on July 2. He allowed one run on five hits, striking out eight and walking just one. Gray has hit some rough patches this season, but he’s given up only two earned runs over 18 innings in his last three starts and he’s still more than capable of missing bats.

If there’s a big weakness that stands out, it’s that Gray has surrendered a lot more contact in the air this season. His home run rate is up over previous seasons as more fly balls leave the yard, so this Cubs team could take advantage if he hangs a sinker or if his slider backs up. That latter mistake has happened more than usual in 2021, leading to negative value from the slider for the first time since 2016.

Gray has a ton of other pitches, though, and he’ll manipulate each almost imperceptibly. It’s similar to how Yu Darvish will tweak each offering just a little bit so that even an eye-popping number of pitch classifications really has even more facets. With Gray, hitters will see a lot of sinkers (29%), fastballs (25%), and curves (22%), but the slider (15%) gets solid usage and the change (4%) can pop up from time to time.

What’s more, he’ll sharpen the slider to a cutter and slow the curve down from time to time in order to keep hitters off-balance. The wealth of stuff means the right-handed Gray has actually been tougher on left-handed batters this season and over the course of his career. Holding lefty hitters to a .195 average with a .274 wOBA is a pretty big deal, but he’s actually keeping them to .177 and .231 when he’s the visitor. Even worse, those batters have just a .198 slugging percentage in the latter sample.

That means right-handed hitters may need to do the heavy lifting in this one, or maybe it’s just a matter of the Cubs reversing some of those season trends. We’ll find out when the game gets started at 1:20pm CT on Marquee and 670 The Score.

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