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Justin Steele provides bright spot amid Cubs rotation struggles, injuries

Ryan Avatar
June 14, 2022

As the Cubs deal with injuries in the rotation, they’re going to need the guys that are healthy to step up and perform. For the last week, that wasn’t the case.

Keegan Thompson was roughed up twice, giving up seven earned runs in three innings to the Orioles last Tuesday and recorded just two outs and gave up three earned runs to the Yankees on Sunday. Wade Miley lasted just three innings in his first start since being activated off the 15-day injured list on Friday before leaving the game with left shoulder soreness, then was put back on the IL with a left shoulder strain the next day. Matt Swarmer had impressed in his first two starts in the big leagues, but the rookie allowed six solo home runs in five innings on Saturday.

Those struggles come in addition to the ailments their fellow rotation mates are currently facing. Though scheduled to pitch Tuesday, Kyle Hendricks hasn’t pitched since June 1 as he’s been given extra rest to work through some issues. Marcus Stroman was set to pitch last Wednesday in Baltimore before the game was rained out, and two days later, he went on the 15-day IL with right shoulder inflammation. Drew Smyly went on the IL at the beginning of the month, and he estimated he could spend around a month on the shelf.

It’s been a struggle for the Cubs to find much consistency from the starters this season, which is why it seemed imperative that Justin Steele start the homestand on the right foot Monday — though Steele didn’t necessarily feel that pressure to perform, even with of the Cubs’ starting pitching problems.

“Regardless of all that stuff that was going on with the rotation and whatnot, I definitely wanted to keep competing,” he said. “I felt like I had my stuff coming into the bullpen, so definitely wanted to go out there and give my best stuff.”

What also made it feel important that he turn in a start that gave the Cubs a chance to win was the Padres pitcher on the mound opposite Steele on Monday.

That would be Yu Darvish, the former Cub whose 2020 season (8-3, 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 3.0 fWAR) earned him a spot as a finalist for that year’s National League Cy Young Award.

If anything, seeing Darvish stand on the Wrigley Field mound for the first time since being traded on Dec. 29, 2020 — and then go on to hurl eight innings of one-run ball — served as a reminder of just how far the rotation has sunk since it lost its last front-line starter. Sure, Hendricks has looked like an ace in the past and was a Cy Young finalist in 2016, but his 2021 numbers were among the worst of his career, and he hasn’t fared much better in 2022.

That’s mirrored how the rotation has looked since Darvish’s departure from the North Side of Chicago. Whereas the starters had respectable combined numbers during Darvish’s last season with the Cubs, things have been much different over the last two. From the beginning of 2021 through Sunday, Cubs starters had the lowest combined fWAR (4.0) of the 30 major league rotation, the second-highest FIP (5.13) and the third-highest ERA (5.19). There’s no guarantee that Darvish would have drastically improved those numbers had he not been traded, but from the second half of 2019 through the end of his tenure in Chicago, he looked a whole lot more like the rotation anchor the Cubs thought he’d be when they signed him prior to the 2018 season. And since the trade, they haven’t had a starter who’s been able to replace that production.

The only time the Cubs scored against Darvish on Monday was Yan Gomes’ second-inning home run, but the rest of the night featured the same stagnant offense that showed up throughout the East Coast trip.

“That’s who (Darvish) is,” said Ian Happ, whose sixth-inning single was one of just five hits the Cubs recorded off Darvish. “He’s a really good pitcher in this game and did a good job of mixing up pitches, mixing up sequences, kind of keep us off-balance there.”

So it was up to Steele to keep it close, and for seven innings, he answered the call. He was efficient and threw 60 strikes in just 77 pitches, and besides the one run he allowed in the third, he kept San Diego’s bats mostly quiet throughout the night.

Steele nearly didn’t get the chance to go deep into this one, as he almost had to leave his start Monday before finishing the first inning. Steele attempted to snag a comebacker from Jake Cronenworth just two batters into his night, but he tried to grab it which his bare hand. Steele said the initial contact to his index finger caused some pain as he pitched. The training staff and manager David Ross went out to check on him and had him throw some warm up pitches to make sure he was OK to keep going.

Steele felt he could pitch through the pain, and he ultimately finished his night with just the 12th quality start by a Cub this season.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Steele said about the trying to field the ball barehanded, “but yeah, I was able to manage the pain a little bit going through the start. After that inning, went down in the cage, threw some balls into the net. Could feel it a little bit, ripping on the seam, but I felt the pain was manageable, so I just kept going.”

With his low pitch count, Steele likely could’ve gone even further, but a decrease in velocity throughout his night prompted Ross to go to the bullpen instead.

“I just started to get worried about, how much pressure is he taking off that finger?” Ross said. “There’s a bruise on there, and it was sensitive to the touch. I don’t know if we knew he was going to get through the second inning. He went out to try it and ended up pitching great. Credit to him. Kind of a gutsy outing from what it felt like, where we might be in real trouble with the shortness of our staff before that second inning.”

“I’m not taking him out the way he’s pitching and 77 pitches on a normal day,” Ross added.

Though his night didn’t lead to a ‘W’ — the Cubs dropped the game, 4-1, after Rowan Wick allowed three runs in relief — to end the team’s now seven-game losing streak, it did mark his second consecutive outing allowing just one earned run in seven innings, matching his last start against the Cardinals on June 5 and providing a bit of consistency for what has been an inconsistent group of starters.

The problem now lies on where the Cubs’ rotation goes from here. Outside of Steele’s last two outings, only Swarmer has put together a quality start this month. Three of the projected starters (Stroman, Miley and Smyly) are on the IL, which has brought about the quick turnover that has had Thompson and Swarmer join the rotation and could lead to top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian getting called up to fill in once again.

Steele hasn’t been the model of consistency, either, having failed to make it through five innings of work as many times as he’s gone five-plus frames this season. But the last two starts signal that Steele might be starting to figure things out, and the hope is that he can build off of that and put up similar performances more often than not as the Cubs look to find stability in the current crop of starters.

“He did a phenomenal job of taking the ball and going out there and kind of figuring it out,” Ross said. “We might need to smash him in the finger a couple of times before he starts. That was impressive.”

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