Justin Steele, Cubs rise to the occasion in ‘playoff’ environment
In a crucial series amongst a pair of rivals vying for a precious division crown, the baseball gods delivered a must-see pitching matchup Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.
“Two good horses going at it,” manager David Ross said before the game. “Two no. 1’s in my opinion this year. And you’ve got them going out and playing for the division, shoot, this is what we sign up for. This is what you hope for in Spring Training.
“This is as exciting as it gets for me getting to September and being in this type of race. It’s fun.”
Boy, did it live up to the billing.
All-Stars Justin Steele and Corbin Burnes matched each other for most of the night, but a 1st-inning groundout from Cody Bellinger proved to be the difference in one of the year’s best pitching duels as the Cubs snapped the Brewers’ 9-game winning streak 1-0. The Cubs moved to 4 games back of Milwaukee in the NL Central.
“Yeah you always want more runs, but I think that’s a great environment against a first place team,” Ross said after the game. “That felt like a playoff game. That’s good for us.”
Steele tossed a career-high 111 pitches en route to 6 shutout innings where he struck out 8 and allowed 6 hits and a walk. Burnes was just as terrific, striking out 7 over 7 frames of 1-run ball with 8 hits and 2 walks to his ledger.
“I loved it. I loved pitching in that environment. Wrigley, the fans here do a really special job of knowing the situation. Knowing what’s at stake, knowing when to get on their feet,” Steele said. “That’s stuff you just don’t really see everywhere else and it’s truly special to pitch for these fans. I loved it. That was a really fun environment to pitch in.”
But where Steele seemed to escape every roadblock the Brewers threw his way, it was Burnes’ 1st inning that did him and the Brewers in.
After Steele escaped a second and third, 1-out jam in the top of the 1st, Bellinger’s groundout to second base that plated Nico Hoerner was the one run that would separate two terrific pitchers.
For the Cubs’ ace, Tuesday night was all about bending, but never breaking.
Nothing epitomized it more than the 2nd inning. With one out, Victor Caratini reached on a single that hit Steele square on the leg, just above the knee. Ross and a trainer came to check on him.
“I don’t know if anybody ever got dead-legged in school, like somebody puts a knee in your leg and you kinda limp around for a minute, it’s kinda what it felt like when I initially put some weight on it,” Steele said. “I just needed to get some blood flow there. It was fine.”
The next batter, Brice Turang, singled up the middle. Steele buckled down and got Tyrone Taylor to ground into an inning-ending double play.
“I know how tough he is, but I mean I’m not taking him out unless he wants me to bring him out,” Ross said. “It sounded like a lot of meat on there and as soon as we confirmed that, I know where his heart is and who he is down to the core, but yeah I wasn’t too worried.”
The next inning, Steele stopped another Brewers salvo by striking out Willy Adames and Andruw Monasterio to strand runners at first and second. Steele retired 11 of the last 12 batters he faced before turning it over to the Cubs’ three leverage relievers, who were well-rested to preserve the lead.
“I thought he got more efficient. I thought he had to work hard early,” Ross said of Steele.
Mark Leiter Jr. pitched a perfect 7th inning, striking out Caratini.
In the 8th inning, Christian Yelich led off the frame against Julian Merryweather with a bunt single to third base. Yan Gomes nabbed Yelich trying to swipe second, a perfect throw and tag from Hoerner killing the Brewers’ rally.
That left the 9th inning to the Cubs’ closer Adbert Alzolay. Alzolay came out of the Cubs’ bullpen with “Belly Dancer” by BYOR & Imanbek blaring over the speakers and brought the crowd of 33,294 to their feet.
The fans were riding with each pitch, creating an October-like atmosphere at the Friendly Confines.
“I had the PitchCom in my hat [that] goes to 20 on the max volume and I hadn’t gone past 18, but I was at 20 in the last inning just to be able hear the pitch we were going to throw,” Hoerner said. “It was pretty cool. It’s amazing here.”
Alzolay did what he has done as the closer — shut the door and sealed a Cubs’ win.
“We made some mistakes, too, but to come out ahead of that game, that’s a growth moment and just proves, ‘hey we can play with some of the best teams in the league,'” Ross said. “I think we know that, but in this environment, that was fun.”
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