As Ian Happ crashed into the ivy-covered wall in left field in the top of the fifth, Justin Steele raised both hands in the air — one in a fist, the other still inside his glove — in celebration of his left fielder’s impressive catch.
“I was just hoping it was staying in, hoping the basket wouldn’t catch it,” Steele said.
It wasn’t a home-run robbery, of course, but it still played a roll in what turned out to be a dominant outing for Steele.
With the Cubs’ rising ace grinding into the fifth inning, Happ’s catch ensured the Brewers’ lead-off man didn’t reach base to start the frame with the Cubs clinging to a 1-0 lead. Had the catch not been made, maybe the inning turns out differently. Instead, Steele retired the next two batters to quickly end the frame (during a span where he sent down 11 of the last 12 batters he faced) and keep the Cubs ahead.
Another incredibly effective Steele outing — six innings and zero runs for his 18th quality start of the season — combined with three shutout frames from the bullpen, plus a Cody Bellinger RBI groundout in the first, was all the Cubs needed to knot up the series with the division rivals in the 1-0 win.
“Big time performance by Justin,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “A lot of pitches early on, [Brewers] fouling off some pitches, not being able to put guys away, pitching with traffic to a lot of really good hitters, and he was able to stay poised.”
With the ‘W’, the Cubs move back to four games behind the Brewers in the National League Central and retain sole possession of the second NL Wild Card spot. Though it wasn’t exactly a sellout — 33,294 was the announced attendance — the crowd certainly gave a matchup between rivals battling for a division title the atmosphere it deserved.
“I loved it,” Steele said. “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. I think there was a moment in the first inning they were on their feet, because they knew a big pitch was coming. I mean, that stuff you just don’t really see everywhere else. It’s truly special to pitch for these fans.”
Kyle Hendricks is well-known around Wrigley Field for his even-keeled demeanor. No moment, even starting Game 7 of the World Series, seems to knock Hendricks off his game. He always feels composed out there, which you’d expect to see from someone who has started some of the biggest games in franchise history.
Steele may not have the playoff moments under his belt, but those around him sense that same type of composure no matter what the situation is.
“Justin is as even-keel of a guy [as we have],” Ross said. “I can put him in the Kyle Hendricks category, with a lot less experience, right? Goes out, very simple-minded, simple approach. He’s going to do what he does best, and he’s seen that work out over and over again. He’s a pretty steady human being.”
That’s the type of mentality the Cubs needed Tuesday night. Milwaukee had Corbin Burnes, the three-time All-Star and 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner, on the mound. Burnes is of course the veteran between the two, but Steele earned his first All-Star nod in July and has pitched himself firmly into this year’s NL Cy Young conversation.
Only a handful of games separate these two teams in the standings, and both had their aces on the mound. It was the kind of atmosphere fans hoped they’d be getting at the end of August heading into this year.
“Two good horses going at it, two No. 1s, in my opinion, this year, and you’ve got them going out and playing for the division,” Ross said. “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.”
Steele didn’t have the easiest start to his night.
Though he escaped the first inning without a run, Steele needed 29 pitches to do so. Then in the second, he took a 100.2 mph liner off his left leg, just above the knee, that brought Ross and a trainer out to check on him. Steele quickly proved he was fine to remain in the game, and he grinded through the sixth to keep the Cubs ahead by a run.
“I wasn’t really thinking about [coming out of the game],” Steele said. “I was just trying to get it to where I could put weight on it and feel fine, but I wasn’t really worried about it.”
“He’s just always on the attack,” Nico Hoerner said. “Take a line drive to the leg and just keep going, and if anything, pick up steam.”
To get through those six innings, however, Steele ended up throwing a career-high 111 pitches.
The Cubs are well aware that Steele has surpassed the highest innings total of any other year in his career. They understand that, because he missed all of last September because of a back injury, this is shaping up to be his true first full major league season. Throwing 111 pitches is probably not the Cubs’ ideal scenario for any of Steele’s starts at this point in the season.
But with the rotation in dire need of consistency, his ability to give his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound is invaluable. He’s one of the biggest keys for this team to make the playoffs.
“I feel great. I feel like I’m in a good spot,” Steele said. “Wasn’t even paying attention to the pitch count, really. I feel like I can throw a lot of pitches any given night. Yeah, I felt good. It was a good performance, and I was happy with it.”
Steele is 15-3. He’s got the second-lowest ERA in the majors among qualified starters (2.69). He’s now thrown 18 quality starts (tied for second-most in the majors) in 25 outings in 2023. The Cy Young could very well be his at season’s end.
The Cubs obviously hope Steele can keep performing at this level for the rest of the year. And as long as he still feels good, they’re going to keep letting him try.