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In order for Justin Steele to secure a spot in the Cubs rotation, he will need to master his command. And in order to do that, he will need to quell the fatigue that can hinder his mechanics.
Steele has a big fastball and a biting curve that give him swing-and-miss stuff, but when one or the other is not hitting the zone, he labors on the mound. In a 4-3 loss to the Pirates on Sunday, Steele’s command was shaky early. He ended up needing 79 pitches to get through three innings while giving up three runs on four walks and four hits.
The shaky command was a product of a breakdown in his mechanics, Steele said after the game.
“My front side was leaking a little bit instead of staying back on my back leg and keeping my ear over the rubber,” Steele said.
That left his arm dragging behind in the process, and his release point was inconsistent early. As his pitch count climbed, Steele’s command declined. He worked around a walk in the first and second innings, but a leadoff walk to Bryan Reynolds in the third turned into a run.
Steele said his command felt good coming out of his pregame bullpen session and even during the first inning. But long at-bats in the second inning pushed his pitch count up quickly.
“As the game went on, kind of lost command of my four-seam, started losing my breaking ball arm-side,” Steele said. “It felt like there were a bunch of deep counts, made my pitch count climb. Started getting a little tired.”
For now, Steele has a place in the rotation, but with Alec Mills and Wade Miley both nearing returns, that may not stay true for long. Miley threw a 50-pitch bullpen session Saturday and is slated to throw to live BP in Atlanta on Wednesday. Mills was in Chicago Sunday but will head to Triple-A Iowa for a rehab start this week. When both of them return, Steele will have a tougher fight for his spot as a starter.
If he is going to remain a part of manager David Ross’s rotation, Ross said he wants to see Steele better able to command his swing-and-miss stuff.
“There’s that fine line [between] running to pitches that you feel control of or continue to navigate not having command of your best pitches and trying to find those,” Ross said. “And I think that’s the pitcher and catcher relationship, trying to work through those things. It’s just about being able to, when he does find those moments of not synced up, is finding a rhythm to get back to that.”
If fatigue continues to be an issue like it was against the Pirates on Sunday, then Steele will need to make his adjustments during the days between his starts. For that, Steele might benefit from looking to some of the veteran starters around him.
“It’s how you take the next five days,” Kyle Hendricks said. “There’s a lot of things you can do in your routine, whether it’s taking things out or adding to it. Every guy is different, whether they need more or less. And then seeing how you feel your next start out and then building on that process.”
Pitchers can do work during the offseason to build their physical stamina, but that does not prevent them from still needing to adjust their routines during the season. They each have a pattern for how much they like to throw, run, and lift during the days between starts. Making small changes to that routine can often yield big results.
“You experiment, and the more experiences you have doing that, you get to know yourself and your body. And the older you get, you know the things you can go to,” Hendricks said.
Steele said he plans to hone in on keeping his back side back during his next bullpen session. That, he expects, will keep the rest of his mechanics lined up correctly and keep his arm from dragging behind whether or not he starts to fatigue.
“I expect it to go well,” Steele said.
A day after a franchise-history making win, the offense mustered three runs against Pirates pitching. The Cubs scored the first two in the first inning and then went quiet until Ian Happ’s solo home run to left center in the eighth inning. They had an opportunity to tie or even win in the ninth when Rafael Ortega and Seiya Suzuki hit back-to-back one-out doubles, but Willson Contreras and Frank Schwindel followed with swinging strikeouts.
Sunday’s loss capped off a 2-5 homestand against the Rays and Pirates and dropped the Cubs to 7-9.
“I think we’re a lot better than losing 3 out of 4 to the Pirates at home. I think we are better than that,” Steele said.
If that’s going to be proven true and if he wants to protect his spot in the rotation, Steele needs to get a handle on his mechanics. His next start should come next weekend in Milwaukee.
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