The Atlanta Braves (100-56) are trying to wrap up home field throughout the National League playoffs while the Chicago Cubs (82-74) just hope to make the field at all as these two teams square off for a huge three-game series this week. First pitch of Tuesday’s opener from Truist Park is set for 7:20 p.m. ET. Chicago will send lefty ace Justin Steele (16-5, 3.00 ERA) to the mound while Atlanta counters with rookie Bryce Elder (12-4, 3.63).
The Braves enter play on Tuesday with a 3.5-game lead on the Dodgers for the NL’s top seed, plus the season series tiebreaker — barring a spectacular collapse this week, the National League pennant should run through Atlanta. The Cubs, meanwhile, are hanging on to a playoff spot by a thread, tied with the Diamondbacks for the second and third NL Wild Card spots and just a game ahead of the Miami Marlins.
Atlanta enters as -148 favorites on the moneyline at DraftKings Sportsbook, with Chicago at +124. The run total is set at nine.
Cubs-Braves picks: Tuesday, September 26
Day to day: 1B/3B Jeimer Candelario (back), RP Adbert Alzolay (forearm)
Out: RP Brad Boxberger (forearm), INF Nick Madrigal (hamstring), RP Michael Fulmer (forearm), RP Nick Burdi (appendectomy), RP Brandon Hughes (knee)
Out: SP Charlie Morton (finger), SP Max Fried (blister), RP Collin McHugh (shoulder), RP Nick Anderson (shoulder), RP Dylan Lee (shoulder), SP Michael Soroka (forearm), SP/RP Yonny Chirinos (elbow), OF Ehire Adrianza (shoulder), OF Sam Hilliard (heel)
Justin Steele vs. Bryce Elder
The Cubs likely wouldn’t be holding on to a playoff spot right now if it weren’t for Justin Steele’s effort in the second half, but the lefty has looked like he’s wearing down of late, allowing 12 runs on 15 hits over nine innings across his last two starts. His stuff and his velocity are both down a bit, which is a bad time to be facing the Braves’ Death Star of an offense — especially considering that Atlanta touched Steele up for four runs on eight hits and four walks in 5.1 innings at Wrigley Field in early August. The lefty has already blown past his career innings high this season, and it remains to be seen whether he has enough gas in the tank to carry Chicago across the finish line.
Elder’s had a roller-coaster rookie season — sensational first half, hitting a wall in the second half — and September has been all of that in microcosm. The righty began the month with consecutive quality starts against the Pirates and Dodgers, but he’s been touched up for eight runs on 12 hits and five walks over 8.2 innings across his last two outings against the Marlins and Phillies. Elder relies almost entirely on commanding his sinker and slider to produce a ton of ground balls (and on Atlanta’s defense to turn those ground balls into outs); we’ve seen him be successful with that formula, but we also know how small the margin for error is. The Cubs touched him up for seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and three walks in just 4.1 innings at Wrigley Field last month.
The last time these two pitchers faced these two offenses, the run totals wound up at 14 and 10. Given Elder’s inconsistency — and the success Chicago has already had against him — and Steele’s shaky recent form, I’m backing the over again in a game in which the Cubs lineup could be adding Jeimer Candelario back into the mix.
Pick: Over 9
Atlanta’s pitching remains a question mark, but I don’t think it’ll come back to bite them in this spot, at least not unless Steele is able to look a lot more like the pitcher he was earlier this summer. I’d need the Cubs to be getting a lot more juice in order to go with the underdog in a game in which they might not even have the advantage on the mound to neutralize the Braves’ big bats.
Pick: Braves -148