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Friends for almost a decade, Cubs' Justin Steele and Adbert Alzolay are enjoying big league success together

Ryan Avatar
July 13, 2023

In a video the Cubs put on social media on July 2, manager David Ross saved Justin Steele for last when he listed off the names of the three Cubs players selected to the 2023 MLB All-Star Game. It was Steele’s first All-Star selection, after all. Following the announcement, Ross walked over to Steele’s locker in the Cubs’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field and embraced the 27-year-old southpaw.

Ross was thrilled in that moment. Steele obviously was, too. But in the back of the video, two lockers over, you can see the one person in that clubhouse who was just as elated as Steele (and heck, maybe even more so): Adbert Alzolay.

“I got goosebumps right away,” Alzolay said. “It’s just great a moment. When you see your brother having that kind of success, it just takes you to another level of joy, just seeing his happiness.”

That was barely two weeks after a win over the Orioles on June17, one in which Steele tossed five innings of two-run ball and Alzolay earned his fourth save of the season. As Steele sang Alzolay’s praises postgame, he quickly reminded everyone how deep their relationship runs: “As we all know, that’s one of my great friends ever since I’ve been drafted.”

Yes, anyone who has paid attention knows about the friendship between Steele and Alzolay. They always seem to mention it whenever they’re asked about each other.

But still, how do a couple of young arms, one from Mississippi and the other from Venezuela, become such great friends?

After speaking with the people who’ve seen them grow since the summer of 2014, CHGO has the story on the development of two pitchers who’ve built friendship nine years in the making.

Building a bond

The Cubs drafted Steele in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of George County High School in Lucedale, Mississippi. Only a month later, on July 3, he made his debut for the Arizona League Cubs. It seemed to be a quick turnaround from high school to getting his professional baseball career underway.

But that wasn’t the only shock Steele would experience early on. He estimates that when he got to Cubs rookie ball in Mesa, Arizona, there were only five American-born players.

The cultural differences in that situation, surrounded by new teammates from many different countries, were obvious.

“I think that it’s difficult for [the American-born players], because they come in and they don’t expect it to be like that, I believe, because they’re from the U.S., they get drafted by a U.S. team, and they’re going to rookie ball. And then they’re dominated by mostly Latin players,” said Jimmy Gonzalez, now the Red Sox’s Florida Complex League manager, who managed both Steele and Alzolay in 2014 (AZL) and 2016 (South Bend) plus Steele for another season in 2019 (Tennessee).

Alzolay was probably helpful in Steele’s acclimation process.

He officially signed with the Cubs in 2013 and arrived in Arizona the next season. However, where a language barrier might’ve existed between players from different parts of the world, it didn’t with Alzolay and his new American teammates.

Alzolay said that it was required at his high school to know how to have a conversation in English. His parents also pushed him to learn the language, and because his brother’s wife came to the U.S. for school, the two would also speak in English. So, there wouldn’t have been much of a barrier between him and Steele as far as communicating.

Still, Alzolay recalls Steele being the one to initiate their chats.

“I remember the first time we ever had a good conversation was we were hanging out in [former Cubs prospect] Gleyber Torres’ room after a game. We all were hanging out there, pretty much all the Americans were next door, so Steele came to our room and he was like, ‘Why you guys don’t want to hang out with us?'” Alzolay said with a laugh. “And then that was when we started having our first conversations, and everything grew from there.”

Things grew from there that first year. The duo had more teammates in rookie ball than at any other level of pro ball, but their bond continued to develop that first season — a bond that became the building block of a long friendship.

“Back then after starts, we would go get a bite to eat and stuff. Just hanging out and stuff after games, getting to know one another, getting to know each other’s families,” Steele said. “It’s just really cool. I really can’t put into words how awesome it is. It’s like a 10-year friendship now.”

Moving through the minors

Most of their first four minor league seasons were spent together. From Arizona in 2014 to short-season Eugene in 2015 to South Bend in 2016 to Myrtle Beach in 2017, they were together basically every step of the way.

And in that time, Steele and Alzolay’s relationship continued to grow.

“They were together and always joking around with each other,” said Buddy Bailey, who managed the pair for most of 2017. “You knew there was a special thing going on there between the two.”

While their friendship blossomed, so did their individual pitching careers. And it came from more than what they did while on the mound.

Both Bailey and Gonzalez noticed rising maturity levels for both as they moved up the system. These weren’t kids breaking into pro baseball anymore. They were continuing to find new ways to improve. They were developing their routines, both in between and on the day of starts. And when it came time for them to take the bump, it was all business.

“They had the eye of the tiger,” Bailey said. “When it’s their day to pitch, their whole demeanor and their face has somewhat of a different look, because you know that they’re locking themselves into what they’re getting ready to go do. … Their commitment to themselves and their work ethic, and when it’s their day to compete, they’re ready to compete. Having seen them and just the way they go about their business as a pure pro from the get go, all the way through, that’s what it takes.”

It wasn’t until 2017 that the pair finally broke apart. The Cubs promoted Alzolay to Tennessee on July 6, 2017, and Steele probably wasn’t too far behind. But on Aug. 1, Steele left his start for the Pelicans after just 2 1/3 innings — and he wouldn’t pitch again that season. A left elbow injury required Tommy John surgery, which set him back roughly a year.

While Alzolay climbed through the system, Steele was busy grinding through his rehab. But the friendship never wavered. Alzolay spent the rest of 2017 with Tennessee and was up Iowa in 2018, but every step of the way, he made sure to check in with Steele.

“He just kept me positive,” Steele said. “If there’s anybody that’s good at keeping people positive, it’s Adbert. During that time, he just did a really good job of keeping my head in the right space and being a good friend, telling me once I get back that I was very capable of doing it.”

Steele returned in 2018 and was up with Tennessee by 2019. Alzolay was already closing in on the big leagues at that time, and on June 20 of that year, he got to step on the major league mound for the first time.

“It was unbelievable. I still remember it,” Steele said. “That’s when he came off the field and tipped his cap. I remember thinking, I was like, ‘I bet they’re going to give him crap for that.'”

Steele’s moment would come a little under two years later. He’d gotten called up for a few days during the 2020 season but never pitched in a game. It wasn’t until April 12, 2021, that Steele finally got to experience the moment he’d been waiting for. Of course, his good friend was in the building that day to watch it happen.

“It was electric,” Alzolay said. “I don’t think there was any other guy more fired up than me in the dugout that day. As soon as this guy came out of the bullpen and was pitching out there, my adrenaline here in the dugout was through the roof. … It’s just awesome. When you see one of the best people you’ve met in your life having that kind of success, it just brings joy to you.”

Apr 12, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Justin Steele (35) throws against the Chicago Cubs during the seventh inning at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

Finally, they both had made it. And as happy as they were to be there, the ones who watched them from the beginning felt just the same.

“For me, it’s so gratifying. It’s heartwarming,” Gonzalez said. “It makes me proud, because I know at some point, I made a small difference.”

Organizational success

Steele pitched in his first career All-Star Game on Tuesday, tossing a scoreless fifth inning as the National League won, 3-2.

The recognition is a culmination of his breakout first half of 2023, in which his 2.56 ERA ranks second in the NL. Steele developing into an ace might be the biggest key to the Cubs building a winner in the near future.

Not to be outdone, Alzolay has had his own breakout 2023. His 2.29 ERA ranks 11th among NL relievers, his 0.92 WHIP ranks fourth and his 7.17 strikeouts-to-walks ratio ranks second. He’s getting hitters out consistently on both sides of the plate, one of the biggest reasons he’s found success at the backend of the bullpen.

“Watching each of those two guys, specifically, transform into really good players at their respective positions has been really cool for me to see,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “And there’s so much more. I think Justin is just tapping into his greatness, and so is Adbert. There’s going to be further growth to come.”

It wasn’t always supposed to look like this. The initial conversations —both from Steele and Alzolay themselves and from the coaching staff — were that the duo would be in the rotation one day. Then later on, Alzolay was going to be the starter, and Steele was going to be the bullpen arm. But obviously, their paths changed.

“Things don’t work the way you plan it all the time, but I mean, it still works out,” Alzolay said.

One game in particular sticks out as maybe the game when a Steele-starting, Alzolay-relieving combination felt real.

On Sept. 1, 2021, Steele got the ball in Minnesota. He’d only just been recalled and moved into the rotation three weeks prior and still hadn’t earned his first big league ‘W’ as a starter. Meanwhile, the Cubs activated Alzolay off the injured list that day, and to help manage his workload, he would finish the season coming out of the bullpen. To that point, he hadn’t recorded a big league save.

But by the end of that 2 hour, 28 minute win over the Twins, both would get those “firsts” out of the way.

Steele breezed through Minnesota’s lineup, allowing three walks and one hit on 86 pitches over five innings. Alzolay came on in relief and was even more efficient, striking out five and giving up just one hit on 40 pitches to finish the last four innings.

Sep 1, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Adbert Alzolay (73) throws a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Every person involved remembers that game in Minnesota fondly. Steele and Alzolay still talk about it often. It has become a special day, not just because it was two great friends going to battle with each other, but because of what it represented for the organization.

“It just signaled that all the work that we’re putting in, all the things that we’re focused on as an organization is heading in the right direction,” said Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, who started as the run prevention coordinator in late 2014 before moving into his current role before the 2019 season.

The Cubs have touted the improvements in their pitching infrastructure the past few years. For years, the narrative surrounding the Cubs was that they couldn’t develop pitching. And that narrative held some weight, considering there were few examples of homegrown arms supplementing the big league roster during its competitive window.

But that game against the Twins was maybe the first step in changing that narrative. Here were two homegrown arms, who grinded through the minor leagues to get to this point, shutting down a major league lineup together. Nobody else was needed that day. Two of their own guys came up and showed they could be relied on.

The situation no longer calls for Steele to get through five innings and Alzolay to take the next four. It’s almost expected that the former will go at least six at this point, and the latter has only pitched two-plus innings in six of 33 appearances this year (and no more than two since May 7). Still, they both feel that on days Steele gets the ball, if he can pitch deep in the game, he’ll only need Alzolay to back him up at the end.

“Say I was starting tomorrow,” Steele said. “I would come in and I’m just going through my routine and stuff, and he just tells me flat out, he’s like, ‘Hey, if you go six or seven shutty, I got the rest.’ That’s what he tells me all the time. And I’m like, ‘Adbert, find some wood to knock on. You’re jinxing stuff.’

“Man, he just believes in himself, he believes in me, and dude, he’s just awesome to have around.”

Said Alzolay: “It’s just confidence and trust between each other. All the time he’s on the mound, I know I can go multiple innings, so that’s what I tell him: ‘Just go seven, and I can take care of the rest.'”

Now, the duo obviously had to continue on an upward trajectory). That game ultimately wouldn’t matter if Steele and Alzolay didn’t continue to grow into key members of the staff. But still, that homegrown performance always like one the organization could look back on to confirm they were doing something right.

“Success from young players within the system gives great feedback to player development, gives great feedback to scouts,” Ross said. “It gives great feedback to just the organizational depth and philosophies as a whole. It’s super healthy for the organization”

“But also, it’s up to the player to take ownership of that,” added Ross, wanting to make sure the players get credit for their success, too. “At the end of the day, we can have the greatest plans, we can have the greatest scouts, we can have the greatest draft on paper, but it takes the player and the toughness to overcome that. That’s what those guys have done.”

‘Crazy how the world works’

Through it all, the bond between Steele and Alzolay has remained strong.

Alzolay missed nearly all of the 2022 season with a right lat injury. When Steele was going through his Tommy John recovery, even though they were no longer around each other every day, Alzolay made sure to check in often. So, Steele returned the favor when his friend needed it years later.

“It’s just a friendly reminder he was saying every day. Like, ‘Remember, we’re even better when you’re here,'” Alzolay recalled. “Just kind of little words that he would text to me and be like, ‘OK, how are you doing? I’ve been watching bullpens, I’ve been watching your stuff on Ivy. It’s looking good. We can’t wait to have you here.’

“When you see that kind of support from your teammates, it makes a big difference.”

Right now, they’re both in the big leagues proving that everything the Cubs invested in them was worth it. One is an All-Star, one looks like he could get there one day, too. And neither could be prouder of the other.

“Fast forward almost 10 years now, and we’re in this situation. It’s a lot to look back on,” Steele said. “It’s really cool. We’re both fired up for one another. Each and every single day we talk about it. It’s really crazy that we’re here.”

But the original question is still an interesting one: How did these two become such good friends? What are the odds that not only would they both become ballplayers for the Chicago Cubs, but they would also click so well with someone from a much different background?

“It’s crazy,” Alzolay said. “That tells you how small is this world. Two different guys coming from pretty much two different worlds, and then we just meet up in the same organization and then build this great relationship and just keep supporting each other through the process. I feel like that’s been one of the biggest keys. No matter what we’re going through, in life or in baseball, we always have each other’s backs.”

“I’m sitting here, just kind of going through the years in my head,” Steele said. “It’s really awesome to think about being such good friends. We’re from completely different parts of the world. Lucedale, Mississippi doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. He’s from Venezuela. It’s just crazy how the world works.”

For everyone who watched the two grow as players and as friends, it’s another reminder of how this game brings people together.

“I think that just goes to show you that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you are, what nationality you are, what color your skin is; none of that comes into play,” Gonzalez said. “We’re human beings.”

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