PHILLIES’ FRANCO BACK TODAY FOR BIG SERIES AT CHICAGO

By Annie Ross

The Phillies open a three-game series this afternoon in the friendly confines of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, with the prospect of finding out just how good they really are!

The Cubs and Phils are miles apart in offense, but are surprisingly only separated by five wins.

Chicago (31-14) has ascended to the top of the NL Central thanks to a pitching staff sporting a major league-best 2.74 ERA coupled with an offense that averages 5.7 runs.

The Cubs have scored 101 more runs than the Phils’ 155 – the majors’ second-worst mark – but the Phillies (26-21) aren’t far off the pace in the NL East.

”We have to try things,” Phils manager Pete Mackanin said after Andres Blanco swiped home as part of a double steal in Wednesday’s 8-5 win at Detroit. ”We can’t bang it out with most teams, so we’ve got to try all that kind of stuff, take chances.”

The Cubs returned to their high-scoring ways in St. Louis, winning 9-8 Wednesday a day after a 12-3 victory snapped a three-game losing streak in which they plated six runs. They went 16 for 37 (.432) with runners in scoring position in three games against the Cardinals after going 6 for 45 (.133) in such situations in their previous seven.

Ben Zobrist, who turned 35 on Thursday, has been the catalyst to the offense, becoming the first Cub to reach base safely in 31 straight games in a single season since Starlin Castro had a 40-game run in 2011. He is batting .435 with a .509 OBP during a 12-game hitting streak.

“I think he’s at the top of his game now,” Maddon told MLB’s official website.

Kris Bryant has also been locked in, homering four times on Chicago’s 4-5 trip, and batting .320 with nine RBIs in the last six games.

“He’s had really good at-bats,” Maddon said. “From my perspective, he’s not chasing pitches out of the zone.”

Bryant, however, doesn’t have a favorable matchup with the left-handed Adam Morgan (1-2, 5.61 ERA) taking the ball at Wrigley Field. The 2015 NL Rookie of the Year is hitting .213 against lefties compared to .303 versus righties, and has fared worse at Wrigley (.233) than on the road (.311).

Anthony Rizzo is in the midst of a 3-for-38 slump and is 7 for 47 (.149) against lefties on the season. He had the majors’ sixth-best average for a left-handed batter against southpaws last year at .294.

Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies’ top hitter, batting .356 while hitting safely in 28 out of 31 games since being moved to the leadoff spot. However, he is 3 for 19 versus lefties since May 8 and will get his first look at Jon Lester (4-3, 2.60).

The Phillies expect to have No. 3 hitter Maikel Franco in the lineup after he left Wednesday with a sprained right ankle. He is 7 for 15 in his last four games but hitless in six career at-bats against Lester, who is coming off a rare poor outing.

After yielding zero or one run in six of eight starts, Lester was tagged for five and walked a season-high three despite going 2 2/3 innings – his shortest outing since August – in Saturday’s 5-3 loss at San Francisco.

He is 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA in six career starts against the Phillies, throwing seven innings of two-run ball in a matchup last July at Wrigley.

Morgan was coming off a rough outing of his own before bouncing back Saturday against Atlanta, allowing two runs over six innings in a 2-0 loss. He permitted seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in a 9-4 loss to Cincinnati six days earlier.

The Phillies went 5-2 against the Cubs last season, winning all three at Wrigley.

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