Justin Steele is starting to come into his own in Cubs rotation
Justin Steele has stepped up in a big way at a time when the Cubs needed it the most.
David Ross has struggled to find consistent answers for a starting rotation that has been decimated by injuries.
Kyle Hendricks will get the start Tuesday night but it’s his first appearance since June 1 as he’s been banged up and the Cubs have given him some extra rest.
Marcus Stroman was just placed on the 15-day IL over the weekend with shoulder inflammation. Wade Miley joined him after having to leave Friday’s outing early. It’s the second IL stint for Stroman this season and the third for Miley.
Drew Smyly is still on the IL with a strained oblique suffered on Memorial Day.
To make matters worse, Keegan Thompson — who had been the star of the pitching staff early in the season — has notched only 11 outs combined over his last 2 starts.
So Steele couldn’t have picked a better time to settle into his groove.
The Cubs are actually 0-2 in Steele’s last 2 starts, but that’s no fault of the young left-hander. In each of those outings, he has allowed only 1 earned run in 7 innings — including Monday night’s performance where he matched Yu Darvish pitch-for-pitch.
With the outing Monday night, Steele became the first Cubs pitcher to notch consecutive games with at least 7 innings pitched since Darvish turned the trick in August 2020.
Steele is pitching more to contact, with only 4 strikeouts over those 14 innings. But that’s much easier to mitigate when he has induced 23 groundballs in the same span.
What made Monday’s start even more impressive was how it began. On the second batter of the game, Steele tried to field a bouncing ball hit back at him and it deflected off his pitching hand for an infield single.
He ended up bruising his index finger on the play while also dealing with a blister on the middle finger of his left hand.
After a conference with Ross and the team trainers, Steele threw a couple practice pitches and remained in the game. The trainers actually cut the skin off the blister during the brief visit to the mound.
The Cubs had Brandon Hughes and the recently promoted Eric Stout warming in the bullpen in the bottom of the 1st inning because they didn’t know if Steele would be able to go back out to the mound.
Not only did Steele return but he settled in with a perfect frame. The only run he allowed came in the 3rd inning when San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth smacked an RBI single through the Cubs’ shift with 2 outs.
“I don’t know if we knew he was going to get through the 2nd inning,” Ross said. “He went out to try it and he ended up pitching great. Credit to him. A gutsy outing from what it felt like where we might be in real trouble with the shortness of our staff before that 2nd inning.”
In between the 1st and 2nd innings, Steele went down into the tunnel by the Cubs dugout and threw a few pitches into the net to test out the blister and the bruised finger.
“My index finger is what was hurting,” Steele said. “I could feel it rip when I gripped down on the ball. I was able to manage the pain.”
He retired 9 of the last 10 batters he faced and was so efficient, he needed only 77 pitches to get through the 7 innings.
Ross opted to go to the Cubs bullpen for the start of the 8th inning. He didn’t want to push Steele more than he had to while the southpaw was contending with a couple of different issues on his pitching hand.
“I’m not taking him out the way he’s pitching at 77 pitches on a normal day,” Ross said.
Rowan Wick had a rough outing and the Padres offense pushed across 3 runs in the 8th inning to erase Steele’s strong effort.
That advice from Jon Lester has really paid off for Steele. With the back-to-back quality starts, he lowered his season ERA to 4.33.
Part of his success lately has been an increase in fastball command. Over the last 2 outings, Steele has thrown his 4-seam fastball or sinker nearly 78% of the time and on Monday, he threw 60 of his 77 pitches for strikes.
“I’ve always known that I was capable of doing it,” he said. “It was just about putting the pieces together in order to get deeper into ballgames. The last 2 starts, I’ve done a better job of that. Commanding the 4-seam and sinker to both sides of the plate. That’s gonna help tremendously.”
Steele doesn’t believe the index finger bruise or the blister will have any impact on his next start.
But Ross and the Cubs might want to make that a regular part of Steele’s routine.
“We might need to smash him in the finger a couple times before each start,” Ross joked, “because that was impressive.”