Chicago Cubs Split With Pirates, Eye Giants Series

A successful 5-1 road trip for the young Chicago Cubs is certainly noteworthy, but bigger challenges await Thursday as San Francisco comes to Wrigley Field for four games. With an overcharged Mets team fighting for playoff contention and Pittsburgh opening up another key series against the Dodgers on Friday, the Cubs are well-positioned to do damage both in the NL Central and in the wildcard hunt.

During the spring, Joe Maddon lauded the young talent before him, staking claim to a postseason run that many considered premature. Kris Bryant started the season in Triple-A, Kyle Schwarber wasn't expected to play, and making trade deadline moves didn't register on anyone's radar. But we're in August, and these Chicago Cubs are pitching like Cy Young aces, hitting with precision and playing team baseball much better than analysts expected. Facing the World Champs in a four-game series should prove how worthy of playoff action Maddon and his talented lineup are.

Anthony Rizzo has belted five homers over the last week. Buster Posey has been unstoppable, hitting 17 RBIs since the All-Star break. San Francisco is an absolute terror while batting, ranking top 10 in many hitting categories; the Chicago Cubs have a top 10 pitching staff. On paper, these two teams should play one-run ball for four games, but the edge will clearly go to San Francisco due to their playoff experience and coaching staff. It certainly doesn't help that Cubs hitters have been spotty of late, especially given the Giants' dominant pen and solid starting pitching.

The opening game should be interesting, with Chris Heston (the no-hitter guy) facing Jason Hammel (who's 0-3 with a 3.17 ERA against San Fran). The Giants have dominated in Wrigley of late, winning 7 of 9 and hitting the lights out. Chicago will miss Madison Bumgarner's start, and Jon Lester will start Friday due to Monday's rained out game. In the series, Chicago will see Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, and Mike Leake along with Heston. San Fran will tee off against Arrieta, Lester, Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks (who's never seen the Giants).

The Cubs can do tremendous damage to Pittsburgh, New York Mets, and San Francisco even by splitting the four-game series. With everyone facing stiff competition over the weekend, there's never been a better opportunity for the Chicago Cubs to prove their worth before an expected sold-out crowd. After this series, Chicago will play most of August at home against teams not expected to play deep into October, yet another opportunity for these youngsters to prove 2015 is about more than rebuilding -- it's about raising the bar.

[Photo by Jared Wickerham / Getty Images Sport]