Everything to know about MIL-CHC opener

CHICAGO — Cubs manager David Ross had an empty Wrigley Field with pumped-in crowd noise for his first Opening Day at the helm two years ago. Last year, the Friendly Confines were not yet at full capacity when the Cubs opened at home.

Finally, Ross will step into the Wrigley Field dugout with the old ballpark packed and primed for the 2022 season.

“I don’t know if there’s a better place I’ve ever been,” Ross said. “And Opening Day is special. Start of a new journey. It’s exciting. Exciting for the fans, exciting for the players, exciting for me, the coaching staff. Everybody’s pumped up.”

There’s no easing into the regular season here, either, with the Cubs hosting the rival Brewers in a four-game set to begin the campaign.

The Brewers draw a division rival in transition, eager to upset, and a starting pitcher in Kyle Hendricks, who shut out Milwaukee on three hits on Opening Day just two years ago. The Cubs draw the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner in Corbin Burnes, making his first career Opening Day start for the reigning NL Central champions.

“Milwaukee’s good,” Ross said, “and has got some horses on their pitching staff.”

Like a hitter who loves to hit at a certain ballpark, is there a level of comfort for a pitcher returning to a scene of success?

“Not necessarily,” Burnes said. “For me, it’s going out and taking the baseball on a mound of dirt and doing what I can. To me, the ballpark isn’t going to play a factor.”

Here is everything you need to know about the Cubs and Brewers for Opening Day:

When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is scheduled for 1:20 p.m. CT on Thursday and will be available on MLB.TV. The game will be televised on both Bally Sports Wisconsin (for Brewers fans) and Marquee Sports Network (for Cubs fans), as well as on MLB Network. Radio broadcasts will be provided by the Brewers Radio Network and 670 AM The Score and can be heard on MLB Audio.

The starting lineups
Brewers:
Milwaukee’s offense disappeared during the final weeks of 2021, including in the NL Division Series against the Braves, but the group returns largely intact for ‘22. The biggest additions were free agent Andrew McCutchen, who mashes lefties and will serve as the designated hitter and occasional corner outfielder, and right fielder Hunter Renfroe, acquired in a trade to replace free-agent departure Avisaíl García. Renfroe should be an upgrade defensively thanks to a plus throwing arm, and he is coming off 31 home runs and a career-best .816 OPS. As usual, the key for the Brewers’ offense is left fielder Christian Yelich, who is bidding to bounce back from the least productive season of his career.

Cubs: For the past several years, the Cubs’ offense was anchored by names like Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Dating back to last offseason, things have changed dramatically. Willson Contreras is one of the last core pieces left from the 2016 World Series squad, but Chicago is nonetheless hopeful that its lineup can be a strength. Frank Schwindel (1.002 OPS in the second half) and Patrick Wisdom (28 home runs) were breakout players in ‘21. Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal should help improve the group’s contact rate. Newcomer Seiya Suzuki signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Cubs and brings a blend of power and plate discipline. The presence of Yan Gomes, plus the arrival of the DH, should help get more out of Contreras’ bat. The Cubs think they have a great comeback candidate in Clint Frazier. All in all, the North Siders feel their lineup has a variety of ways to generate a solid offensive attack.

Who are the starting pitchers?
Brewers:
Burnes gets the nod over workhorse Brandon Woodruff, who’d started Milwaukee’s past two Opening Day games. Burnes was the pick because he won the NL Cy Young Award, making him the first Brewers pitcher so honored since Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich won in back-to-back years in 1981-82. Burnes led MLB last season in ERA (2.43), expected ERA (2.00), FanGraphs WAR (7.5), strikeout rate (35.6%, eighth-best all-time for a qualifying pitcher), K/BB ratio (6.88), FIP (1.63), home runs per nine innings (0.38) and barrel rate (3.1%). He teamed with Josh Hader on a no-hitter on Sept. 11 at Cleveland, but one could argue that Burnes was even better a month earlier at Wrigley Field, when he struck out 10 consecutive batters in one stretch of a 15-strikeout night. He was 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in three starts against the Cubs last season and is 2-1 with a 3.55 ERA for his career in 11 appearances (five starts).

Burnes exceeded 80 pitches in six innings in his final Cactus League tuneup and expects to be ready to approach the 100-pitch mark in his regular-season debut.

“I think it’s going to be more about ‘ups,’” he said, referring to the number of times he got up for a new inning. “That’s something that we’ll continue to build up every time we pitch.”

As for making the transition from 80 degrees in Arizona to windy, chilly Chicago, Burnes said, “Whatever it is, I’m going to take the baseball and go out and do what I can.”

Cubs: For the third year in a row, the Cubs are handing the ball to Hendricks for Opening Day. Not only is Hendricks the unquestioned leader of the staff, the righty was well-positioned to handle a larger volume at the end of Spring Training. Back in 2020, Hendricks received his first Opening Day nod after the abbreviated Summer Camp and then spun a three-hit shutout against the Brewers at Wrigley Field in the July 24 opener. Hendricks may not be primed for a complete game, but he should be built up to around a 90-pitch level.

“It’s just going out and establishing that aggressiveness, establishing the identity,” Hendricks said of setting the tone for the rotation. “Last year, I didn’t do a great job. This year, I just definitely want to come in, be aggressive, attack, get after it, see what happens.”

Last season was filled with mixed results for Hendricks, who had a career-high 4.77 ERA in 181 innings. He had a brilliant stretch between May and August, going 11-0 with a 2.79 ERA in 16 outings. That run was bookended by a rough start (6.69 ERA in his first seven turns) and a poor finish (7.96 ERA in his last nine outings). This spring, Hendricks focused on improving his fastball command, especially low and away, in an effort to better set up his changeup and curve. Hendricks has gone 42-25 with a 2.94 ERA in his career at home, but had a 5.24 ERA in 17 starts at the Friendly Confines in ‘21. He went 1-1 with a 6.14 ERA in four starts against the Brewers last year, but has a 3.30 ERA in 27 career games vs. Milwaukee.

How might the bullpens line up after the starter?
Brewers:
For the second straight season, everything leads to setup man Devin Williams and Hader, who have combined for the last four NL Reliever of the Year Awards. The Brewers brought back seventh-inning man Brad Boxberger via free agency after he led the team in appearances last season, and right-hander Jake Cousins and left-hander Brent Suter are also expected to pitch some high-leverage innings. One wild card is left-handed pitching prospect Aaron Ashby, who figures to bounce between the bullpen and the rotation as needed, and has a plus slider that could be a weapon in big spots against tough left-handed hitters.

Cubs: The Cubs do not have a set closer. Instead, expect Ross to play the matchup game in late-inning situations. Veteran David Robertson and righty Rowan Wick could see save chances, along with a handful of other arms. While Hendricks should be capable of handling close to a typical starter’s workload out of the chute, the Cubs have a mix of arms built up to handle multi-inning relief appearances. In fact, Chicago’s season-opening rotation is fairly fluid behind Hendricks and righty Marcus Stroman. The Cubs may consider “piggyback” outings, pairing up multiple pitchers to chew up innings. During the spring, the Cubs added experienced arms like Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, Daniel Norris and Jesse Chavez to the fold to balance out a group of less-tested internal options.

Any injuries of note?
Brewers:
Luis Urías bulked up over the winter and was on track to be the Opening Day starter at third base before suffering a left quad injury in the Brewers’ second Spring Training game. That represented a notable loss, as Urías hit a career-high 23 home runs last season.

Cubs: The Cubs claimed lefty Wade Miley off waivers over the offseason from the Reds and looked forward to having him as their No. 3 starter. An elbow issue put the veteran behind in camp and landed him on the shelf to start the season. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was also behind during the spring due to left shoulder soreness.

Who’s hot and who’s not?
Brewers:
Hader had a sensational spring, starting with six up, six down and six strikeouts in his first two Cactus League appearances. … Of Milwaukee’s regular hitters, McCutchen probably had the most productive bat in spring games, including a two-homer performance against the Mariners on March 26 that was notable because both home runs came off a right-hander, Chris Flexen. … Keston Hiura belted 19 home runs as a rookie in 2019 but has fallen on hard times since then. That made his red-hot Spring Training, which included four home runs in his first 10 games, “a big deal,” manager Craig Counsell said. Hiura will pick up at-bats at first base and perhaps at second base and in left field, a position he had not played since college at UC-Irvine.

Cubs: Suzuki used the spring to begin his adjustment to MLB pitching. There were some dry spells, but his first two hits with the Cubs were, fittingly, towering home runs. … Robertson was on a delayed spring program, but the veteran was sharp in his Cactus League debut. He generated two whiffs, struck out a pair of batters and looked like the late-inning weapon the Cubs need. … Wisdom enjoyed a two-homer game, but he also continued to look strikeout prone as he makes some subtle swing changes. … Hendricks finished with a bloated spring ERA (9.53 ERA in four spring starts), but noted that he was “stubborn” about working on fastball execution, regardless of results.

Anything else fans might want to know?
• This marks the second time in three years that circumstances have led to a Brewers-Cubs opener at Wrigley Field. The teams also met there for the first game of the shortened 2020 season, when the coronavirus pandemic pushed Opening Day into late July. Hendricks struck out nine and didn’t walk a batter in a three-hit shutout for a 3-0 Cubs win, Ross’ first as manager. The only other Brewers-Cubs Opening Day matchup was in 2008 at Wrigley, when Kosuke Fukudome homered off Eric Gagne in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, before Tony Gwynn Jr.’s sacrifice fly in the 10th gave the Brewers a 4-3 victory.

• The Brewers won last year’s season series against the Cubs, 15-4, and outscored the Cubs by a 124-67 margin.

• The Cubs won the last matchup between the teams in 2021, denying the Brewers some franchise history. Milwaukee came into that game with a 15-3 record against Chicago in 2021, tying the 2019 Brewers for the most wins in a season against a single opponent (15-4 vs. the Pirates in ’19). The Brewers were also on an 11-game win streak against the Cubs, the second-longest single-season win streak vs. one club (2008, 12-game streak vs. the Pirates).

• The Cubs head into the series with the plan of having lefty Justin Steele (Friday) and Stroman (Saturday) follow Hendricks in the rotation order. That splits up the righties and also divides up the Cubs’ two most stretched-out arms (Hendricks and Stroman) in terms of pitch count.

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Everything to know about MIL-CHC opener

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