MLB Regular Season

Matchup: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates

Date/Time: August 3, 7:00 p.m. ET

Pitching Matchup: Jon Lester (6-8, 3.26) vs. Francisco Liriano (7-6, 2.92)

MLB Betting Odds From BetDSI Sportsbook

Moneyline: Pittsburgh -130

Total: 6.5

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs could meet in the NL Wild Card one-game playoff. On Monday night, they’ll meet in regular season action at PNC Park with a battle of left-handers. Jon Lester and Francisco Liriano are the expected starters for this series opener between NL Central rivals. Baseball fans and bettors can catch this one on ESPN.

The Pirates are probably wishing that the MLB Trade Deadline would have been a week later. They picked up Joakim Soria to add to their bullpen depth, but failed to address their starting pitching shortcomings. On Sunday, the Pirates found out that AJ Burnett’s 2015 season, and subsequently his career, may be over as he deals with an elbow injury. The Cubs also stayed fairly quiet at the trade deadline, though it wasn’t for lack of effort. The Cubs were linked to Carlos Carrasco as a controlled starting pitcher, but opted to take advantage of the lower cost for Dan Haren. The Cubs also added Tommy Hunter to bolster the bullpen.

On Sunday, the Pirates and Reds emptied benches after a series of beanballs and Joe Maddon was ejected from the Cubs game for arguing a replay decision. The Cubs also survived a scare with Kris Bryant’s head/neck discomfort following a hard slide. Will that have any carryover into Sunday? That remains to be seen, but these two starting pitchers could certainly set the tone.

Jon Lester has pitched very well for the Cubs in his first 21 starts into his six-year, $155 million deal. Lester is just 6-8 on the season due to a lack of run support. He has a 3.26 ERA with a 2.93 FIP and a 2.98 xFIP. Moving over to the National League has allowed him to maintain the career-best walk rate that he posted in 2014 and his strikeout gains have been sustainable. Lester was victimized early in the season by some bad defense, but things have normalized since and he is the same reliable, front-end starter he has always been.

The Cubs are 6-4 over the first 10 meetings with the Pirates this season and Lester was the winning pitcher on May 16, scattering nine hits over seven innings with seven strikeouts. The Pirates entered play on Sunday ranked 18th in wOBA, but one of the worst K/BB ratios against southpaws on the season. That should certainly benefit Lester, given his K/BB this season. There’s no rhyme or reason for it, but Lester’s ERA by month this season is 6.23, 1.76, 5.74, and 1.66. In July, Lester posted a 50/5 K/BB ratio over 43.1 innings, so maybe he found a mechanical flaw from June to July and corrected it.

Francisco Liriano missed some time coming out of the All-Star Break with some neck discomfort, but he has thrown the ball pretty well over his last two starts. Liriano has benefitted from Pittsburgh’s defensive ideology of playing a lot of shifts to post some of the lowest BABIPs against of his career. This season, Liriano has his lowest career BABIP at .265, which has led to a 2.92 ERA, a 2.94 FIP, and a 2.82 xFIP. He also has one of his best K/BB ratios this season.

A big reason for Liriano’s success in Pittsburgh is the work of pitching coach Ray Searage. Searage, who played a big role in the rebirth of Edinson Volquez’s career, has helped Liriano refine the slider that he had so much success with earlier in this career. Liriano’s slider rates 20 runs above average this season. By that metric, Liriano has the best slider in the big leagues. The Cubs have really struggled offensively over the last five weeks, but they entered play on Sunday ranked 11th in wOBA against left-handed pitchers.

MLB Prediction: Pittsburgh Pirates

The Chicago Cubs are 6-4 against Pittsburgh this season, but they caught Pittsburgh twice in April, when the Pirates were getting off to a slow start. The Cubs are 4-9 against the Cardinals this season and seem to have a tough time stepping up for these key NL Central matchups. Lester should be good in this start, but Liriano and the Pirates bullpen may be just a little bit better.