Among some of the impressive individual performances on the Cubs through the first two months of the season, the job Justin Steele has done has been arguably the most important. Now, it’s unclear when Steele will get back on the mound to continue his stellar 2023 season.
Steele was removed from the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Rays on Wednesday after the third inning in with what the team called left forearm tightness. The previous inning, Cubs manager David Ross and head athletic trainer Nick Frangella took a visit to the mound after noticing Steele had been “kind of pumping the hand and stretching the forearm a little bit,” as Ross put it.
The group felt comfortable leaving Steele in — especially after Ross said Steele told them he wasn’t feeling a “tingling, no shot down the arm, anything like that” — but after he got the last two outs in the top of the third, the decision was made to take him out.
“The more I watched him throw, the more nervous I got of a guy like that,” Ross said. “Just went ahead, [and for] precautionary reasons, pulled him.”
“It was just kind of tightening up on me and kind of throbbing a little bit. But obviously, wanted to keep competing, keep pitching and stuff, but just for precautionary reasons, it made sense not to push anything,” said Steele, who also noted the tightness and “throbbing” in his forearm began between the second and third innings and that he didn’t exactly feel it during the act of pitching.
The Cubs will head to San Diego ahead of their series versus the Padres, but Ross said Steele will hang back to get imaging done during the off-day Thursday. Yes, both characterized Steele’s removal from the game as precautionary, but the Cubs won’t know the true severity of it until they get the results back. So, better safe than sorry, it seems.
“Have to be cautious with him. He’s really important for us,” Ian Happ said. “We need him for the rest of the season.”
Happ’s not wrong in saying that.
It’s hard to understate how impressive Steele has been this season. Among qualified National League starters heading into Wednesday, Steele was worth the fourth-most fWAR (2.0) and owned the best hard-hit rate (27.6 percent) and the fifth-lowest ERA (2.77) and barrel rate (5.4 percent). And that’s after his worst start of the season Friday against the Reds (3 2/3 innings, five earned runs, 10 hits).
Steele continued that in his start Wednesday afternoon. As he looked to lead the Cubs to a sweep of the best team in baseball, he sent each Rays batter packing the first time through the order. Tampa Bay hitters put eight balls in play, but just one had an expected batting average above .220, and he struck out Rays star Randy Arozarena on a four-seamer to cap off an eight-pitch battle in the top of the first.
But obviously, what was turning into a dominant outing was cut short.
“I felt really good today,” Steele said. “I felt like I had my stuff. Had them swinging at the four-seam in, and that was kind of my game plan. Yeah it sucks, but it happens.”
Hayden Wesneski covered 3 2/3 inning in relief of Steele, but a two-out walk from him in the seventh brought Mark Leiter Jr. out to face left-handed hitter Brandon Lowe. Lowe tied the game with a two-run home run, and the next inning, Jose Siri matched Lowe with a two-run shot that proved to be the difference.
Again, the Cubs are characterizing it as a precautionary move. Ross said he doesn’t “think anybody is sounding any alarms at the moment.” He certainly won’t speculate on how much time Steele might miss before he’s seen the results from the imaging, but he did note having Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad around gives them some options.
The hope for the Cubs right now is that won’t miss any time, and if he does, that it’s minimal — because he’s an huge part this ballclub.
“Steeley has just been lights out this year,” Trey Mancini said. “I’m not going to lie, I didn’t know a ton about him before I came to the Cubs, but I’ve been so impressed by the way he handles himself. To have basically two pitches and do what he does is incredible.
“So hopefully, it’s nothing major, and he’ll be back with us soon. It’s hard to put into words how important he is to this team.”