MILWAUKEE – Oftentimes, a starting pitcher will head to the showers after he leaves the game. It’s a perk of the role. And after pitching six innings against the Brewers on Wednesday at American Family Field, with the Cubs down 3-1, Justin Steele would have been justified for doing what many other pitchers would do in that situation.
Instead, he made it a point to be in the dugout for the ninth inning. With the Cubs down two runs and Milwaukee closer Devin Williams taking the mound, Steele wanted to be in the dugout because he felt like a comeback was in the works.
“It just kind of seemed like we weren’t done,” Steele said.
Williams ranks eighth in baseball with 18 saves this season. Before Wednesday, he had only blown a save once. He’s an All-Star. His changeup is called the “Airbender” because of the massive amount of break it gets across the plate (so much so that when it breaks less than 17 inches, that’s worth writing about).
But Steele remained in the dugout.
Some of the desire was because he felt like his teammates were still going to come through, even down to the last three outs. And some of it was because of how they had won the previous game: A wild 11-inning, 7-6 victory Tuesday that Steele said “was drunk there for a minute.” The Cubs came out on top of that one, putting behind them the maddening 8-6 loss that started this series in Milwaukee on Monday. That was part of why Steele felt like he needed to see the last round of at-bats from his teammates.
“The whole entire season, it seemed like at some point it’s going to fall in our favor,” Steele said. “That might have been the reason why I felt like we were going to do it tonight. I just had a good feeling about it.”
In the ninth, Cody Bellinger and Jared Young both reached with singles. Bellinger’s had an exit velocity of 69.2 mph, Young’s just 58.4. Then, with two outs and both runners in scoring position, Mike Tauchman fouled off four straight pitches from Williams before lacing a double down the left-field line and sending both runners across the plate.
Tauchman said he knew to stay away from William’s changeup. He swung through the first one, laid off the next, and then fouled off two others before getting a four-seam fastball. He went on to score on the next-at bat, as Nico Hoerner hit a weak grounder that put enough pressure on the defense to force a throwing error and then rounded first and kept the play away from Tauchman as he headed home. And in the bottom frame, Adbert Alzolay — who had allowed extra-inning runs in Sunday’s loss to the Guardians and blew a save in Tuesday’s eventual extra-inning win — shut down the Brewers to close out a much-need ‘W’.
Before the last inning, the Cubs had managed just one run and had stranded seven runners. Things were lining up for what has become a frustratingly common Cubs loss: They get the runners on, but can’t bring them home. Going into Wednesday night, they had the third-highest strand rate in baseball.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that the Cubs probably don’t get the chance to cause Williams’ second blown save if not for Michael Rucker. He took the ball in the seventh and eighth innings and kept the Brewers from adding insurance runs. Key to doing that was inducing ground balls that could be converted into double plays. Four of Rucker’s six outs came that way.
All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson had to leave the game with a left heel contusion brought on by stepping on first base, according to Cubs manager David Ross, but even without him, Rucker pitched with the assurance that the soft contact he got would end up in gloves.
“The more confidence we have out there on the field, whether it’s confidence in ourself, confidence in our team to be able to make plays, that’s all helpful,” Rucker said. “That’s one thing I can count on when I go out there, just how solid the guys have been behind us.”
All season, the Cubs have felt like they should be performing better than their record. With Wednesday’s win, they are still five games below .500 and seven games out of first place. But they are the only team in the NL Central with a positive run differential, and their starters’ collective ERA is among the lowest in baseball — though so far, that has not translated into enough wins.
“It comes down to competing in moments. The game is not measured on paper. You gotta come through in moments,” Ross said. “I still stick by we do have a good team. I think some of that is on paper, and some of that still hasn’t transpired.”
The hope in the Cubs’ locker room is that the style of Tuesday’s win and the complete team effort involved in Wednesday’s win means that their number in the ‘W’ column will keep climbing. Baseball players are careful to avoid riding the highs and lows of the season too much, but there is something to putting together back-to-back hard-fought, grinding victories.
Like Steele, others in the dugout could feel the result of the ninth inning coming. Rucker said he felt it because the offense has been competitive against Williams before. And Alzolay said watching the hitters rally was a spark.
“Those are the moments that take your mentality to another level,” Alzolay said. “When you see your teammates out there giving everything they have to put the game back, that was electric. That took my adrenaline from zero to 200 right there.”
Steele might be on to something, not heading into the locker room an inning or two early. Most of the results of this season have been disappointing so far, but this isn’t a group to be rattled. They have had some very good stretches, one in April and more recently when they won 11 of 13 games in a stretch that ran from their series in San Francisco to the first game against the Cardinals in London. But they have also had really bad stretches (they just finished a 1-5 homestand against the Phillies and Guardians).
Still, the fight the Cubs have shown the last two games could be a launching pad to another one of those long good stretches. With the trade deadline less than a month away, they sure need it.
“They don’t waver. It’s very impressive to me,” Ross said. “The fight never goes away in their intensity and preparation, and I think that’s all you can ask for as a manager. If you don’t have good character in there, then you quit. And we don’t have quitters.”