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New York Mets go from frying pan to oven as they return home to face the Chicago Cubs

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The season isn't getting any easier following a sweep at the hands of Washington.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Being swept by the Nationals this week couldn't have been much fun for the Mets. They scored six runs during the three-game series, and those runs weren't even spread out very well. Four came at the beginning of what would turn into a blowout loss on Monday night, and two came in the ninth inning on Wednesday night to narrowly avoid a second straight shutout. New York is in bad shape in the National League East right now with six games separating the rival Nationals, but there is still plenty of time to turn things around and enough talent on the team to do so.

Even if the division was out of reach (it isn't), the Mets are still right in the thick of a Wild Card hunt alongside Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Louis. All three teams are flawed just like the Mets, and New York only needs to finish ahead of two of them to qualify for the postseason.

Of course, the Wild Card opportunity may disappear if the Mets continue to lose, and continuing to lose is a strong possibility when you consider the upcoming opponent. The moves made by club president Theo Epstein during the offseason have transformed the Cubs from intriguing also-ran to overpowering juggernaut, and it doesn't look like they will be stopped anytime soon. Even though they recently lost three of four to Miami and were swept by the rival Cardinals, Chicago seemingly erased its troubles with a dominant three-game sweep of Cincinnati. With an 11-game advantage already in the National League Central, the Cubbies look like they are just biding their time until the postseason begins.

So how are the Cubs so good this year? They're getting consistently solid pitching from the back of their rotation. Coming into the year, we knew that Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester could be great, but a lot of teams have one or two guys who can pitch really well. What sets the Cubs apart is the quality work put in by Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, and free agent acquisition John Lackey.

The lineup similarly has both the studs and the depth that is needed if one wants to crush the rest of the league. Last year's rookie sensation Kris Bryant is leading the charge with even more power than he showed last year. Not only is Bryant on pace for over 40 home runs, but he has cut his strikeout rate from 31 percent down to 23 percent. If he's able to maintain that rate, he can be a star for years to come, but if it gets even lower, he could be unstoppable. That's certainly how Bryant looked on Monday in Cincinnati when he had one of the most successful evenings at the plate in baseball history with three home runs and a pair of doubles.

The new success of Bryant might make fellow young slugger Anthony Rizzo feel like chopped liver, but the 26-year-old lefty is also good enough to carry the offense on any given day. He's always been more of a contact hitter than Bryant, but this season Rizzo is walking as much as he's striking out for a .407 on-base percentage. Oh, and he's also on pace to hit around 40 home runs for a career high in that category. It's safe to say that two young hitters as talented as Bryant and Rizzo are rarely seen on the same team together.

But what about that depth we talked about? Outfielder Jason Heyward has seen his power continue to vanish and could turn into a disaster of a long-term contract, but Ben Zobrist, who chose to sign with the Cubs instead of the Mets during the offseason, is working out much more nicely. The versatile 35-year-old has always been excellent at getting on base, but this season he has rediscovered his power stroke with 10 home runs and is on pace for one of his finest seasons yet.

Elsewhere in the lineup, Addison Russell is striking out a little too much to be considered one of the league's best shortstops, but with the power and patience he has continued to show this year, it looks like he'll get there soon enough. If Russell doesn't work out, there's always Javier Baez, the free-swinging middle infielder who has seven home runs in 188 plate appearances this year.

The lack of a regular lineup spot for Baez just goes to show the incredible depth that the Cubs have built. Even with big pieces like Dexter Fowler, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler on the disabled list, Chicago continues to crank out runs thanks to the talent in their farm system. The most recent call-up to have an impact is Venezuelan prospect Willson Contreras. Although he's considered a catcher by trade, Contreras has shown some serious versatility during his first two weeks in the majors. In 12 games, he's already played catcher as well as first base and left field while hitting .333/.429/.639 with three home runs. It's too bad the rookie isn't on the Mets' roster, because they could use him at all of those positions and maybe a couple more.

Instead, the Mets have been blessed by the gift of James Loney. That doesn't sound like much, but the veteran first baseman has played remarkably well since New York traded cash considerations for him on May 28. Thanks in part to the home run he hit against Washington on Wednesday night, Loney's .451 slugging percentage has surpassed the mark he posted with San Diego's Triple-A affiliate El Paso earlier this year. Maybe those Pacific Coast League numbers aren't as fluky as we think!

Mets fans would like that to be the case for Brandon Nimmo, another player of interest in this critical home series. The first round draft pick of 2011 was hitting .328/.409/.508 with Las Vegas this year before being called up to relieve a struggling Michael Conforto. Nimmo is hitting a modest 4-for-16 during his first four starts, and he's not supposed to be a conquering hero for this New York offense, but I don't think fans are going to mind if he puts together a week or two of excellence to prop the team up a bit.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Cubs Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
June 30, 2016 7:10 PM SNY, MLBN John Lackey Steven Matz
July 1, 2016 7:10 PM SNY, MLBN Jason Hammel Jacob deGrom
July 2, 2016 7:15 PM FOX Jake Arrieta Bartolo Colon
July 3, 2016 1:10 PM SNY Jon Lester Noah Syndergaard
John Lackey

Important stats: 98.1 IP, 102 K, 27 BB, 10 HR, 3.29 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 1.04 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (92 mph), cutter (84 mph), two-seam fastball (92 mph), curveball (79 mph)

A former All-Star from his days with the Angels, Lackey appears to be experiencing a career renaissance since coming over to the National League for the first time at the 2014 trade deadline. With St. Louis in 2015, the veteran right-hander posted the lowest ERA of his career at age 36 while making 33 starts. The trend has continued now that Lackey has moved on to the Cubs. He no longer has an ERA below 3.00, but he's striking out a batter every inning and generally looking like a much younger pitcher. Lackey was lit up for seven runs in fewer than five innings during his latest outing in Miami, but before that he put together an outstanding run of 10 quality starts in a row.

Mets opponent: Bone spurs? Yeah, we're talking about bone spurs. At least, we will be talking about them until Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard start to show some improvement on the mound. Both young starters are said to suffer from the issue, but both should be able to continue pitching for now. That status might change if Matz struggles as much against the Cubs as he did in Atlanta during his latest outing.

Jason Hammel

Important stats: 87.1 IP, 70 K, 27 BB, 8 HR, 2.58 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 1.08 WHIP

Favorite pitches: slider (85 mph), four-seam fastball (92 mph), two-seam fastball (92 mph), curveball (77 mph)

Like Lackey, Hammel is a Cubs starting pitcher who is having one of the best seasons of his career despite a bunch of unspectacular campaigns before this one. I suppose Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio deserves some credit for the performance of Hammel and the staff overall, but on the other hand, the right-hander doesn't appear to be doing anything special this year. His strikeout and walk rates are around league average, but he has kept home runs and BABIP very low compared to his career norms. The good news for the Mets is that Hammel has been even more ordinary since he posted a 0.75 ERA during four starts in April. He's been gradually coming down to earth since then.

Mets opponent: Speaking of coming down to earth... No, that's not right at all. Jacob deGrom has been excellent lately, but those who still keep track of win-loss records will be quick to point out that he hasn't gotten much run support lately. During his last time out, deGrom pitched eight scoreless innings in Atlanta but was saddled with a no-decision in the 1-0 Mets victory. If we're going to keep recording these wins and losses for pitchers, can we at least use common sense and give a guy a win when he's the main reason his team wins the game? No? Well, I suppose we'll hope for the Mets to score against Hammel, then.

Jake Arrieta

Important stats: 103.0 IP, 111 K, 40 BB, 4 HR, 2.10 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 1.02 WHIP

Favorite pitches: sinker (94 mph), slider (89 mph), four-seam fastball (94 mph), curveball (81 mph)

Since we're on the topic of wins and losses, Arrieta recently had his streak of 20 straight winning decisions broken up by a loss to Arizona on June 5 in which he gave up three runs in five innings despite striking out 12 batters with just one walk. In fact, last year's Cy Young Award winner allowed got just one out on a ball put into play that afternoon compared to nine hits for the Diamondbacks. The best part was Arrieta talking about bad BABIP luck after the game, which almost brought a tear to my eye. The worst part was everyone ignoring Arrieta's loss to the Mets in the 2015 NLCS, which makes the streak seem a little less fantastic. Anyway, since that loss the ace is struggling with his control a little bit, walking a total of nine batters in his last two starts. Perhaps he'll fare better against the Mets, who can't hit their way out of a paper bag right now.

Mets opponent: Bartolo Colon did not let the line drive he took to the pitching hand on June 21 against Kansas City bother him too much. Big Sexy was right back at work on Sunday with seven splendid innings in Atlanta. With Colon's 2.86 ERA and all this talk about pitchers competing in the Home Run Derby, you'd think the 43-year-old would be a lock for the All-Star Game, but that would probably be too much fun for baseball, right?

Jon Lester

Important stats: 106.1 IP, 103 K, 24 BB, 11 HR, 2.03 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 0.97 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (92 mph), cutter (88 mph), sinker (91 mph), curveball (75 mph)

Lester is said to be unable to throw to first base consistently, and he still has an easier time controlling the running game than Syndergaard. Maybe that's the way to finally shorten up these baseball games: convince pitchers that the pickoff throw is useless. This veteran southpaw has been solid all season long, but in June he has really hit his stride with a 1.41 ERA in six starts, five of which have lasted at least seven innings. If it weren't for advanced stats, we'd think he was the top pitcher on the Cubs right now.

Mets opponent: Here's your latest Mets conspiracy: Thor lied about the bone spur in his elbow not to avoid excuses about his poor performance on Monday night, but to distract everyone from all those stolen bases he gave up. Thanks to that pitch he threw behind Chase Utley's back in late May, we didn't just witness Syndergaard's shortest outing of the season, but it was perhaps his ugliest with five runs and three walks given up in just three innings. If the talented right-hander can bounce back against one of the top offenses in the majors, no one is going to be talking about bone spurs and stolen bases on Monday morning.

Bullpens

If there's one area where the Cubs can stand to improve, it's probably in the bullpen, where the club is expected to make a move or two at the trade deadline. It's not as though Chicago has a particularly bad bullpen, though. Hector Rondon is doing a great job closing out games and is in the middle of his best ever season with 35 strikeouts and only three walks in 27.1 innings. There's also great set-up work being done by Travis Wood from the left side and Pedro Strop from the right. Both guys have a WHIP below 1.00, although Wood's strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests he could see a drop in performance soon. Even Trevor Cahill has pitched pretty well after being absolutely terrible for Atlanta in 2015. Still, he probably walks too many batters to be completely trusted by manager Joe Maddon, so the Cubs will survey their options come July and try to form a deeper bullpen. They'll be especially interested if a team with a deep relief corps like the Yankees decides to sell some pieces.

Wednesday's result might have been different for the Mets if Sean Gilmartin had not given up a two-run home run by Daniel Murphy in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was another lousy outing for Gilmartin, who had given up five runs in just two innings during New York's blowout loss two nights earlier. Now the 26-year-old lefty is out of the majors, as the Mets have sent him down in favor of right-handed reliever Seth Lugo. The 2011 34th-round draft pick made 13 starts with Las Vegas this year but has recently transitioned to bullpen work. Overall, he's been pretty decent despite a 6.55 ERA that is extremely inflated by a .369 BABIP and 55-percent strand rate. With 55 strikeouts and 18 walks in 68.2 innings, he has the chance to make his mark with the Mets in long relief.

Prediction: banana split

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