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Justin Steele returns to an already 'excellent' Cubs rotation

Ryan Herrera Avatar
May 6, 2024

As Justin Steele fell to the ground in Texas on Opening Day, clutching the back of his left leg, the immediate thought from plenty of Cubs fans was, “What does this team do without him?”

It was a fair question. Jameson Taillon was already on the injured list. The rest of the rotation behind Steele consisted of a 34-year-old veteran coming off a rebound 2023 (Kyle Hendricks), a rookie with just seven big league starts (Jordan Wicks), a high-priced acquisition from Japan (Shota Imanaga) and an arm who may have even been in the bullpen to start the year had Taillon not went on the shelf (Javier Assad).

Behind them, there were some young options as depth, but it was still a question of if they could hold up without the team’s ace pitching every five games.

By the time Steele returned Monday from an absence of over a month due to what was diagnosed as a left hamstring strain, though, the rest of the starting group more than answered the call. As a whole, the Cubs’ rotation had posted the fourth-best ERA in baseball heading into the series opener with the Padres.

Even without Steele, and even with Hendricks posting a 12.00 ERA before hitting the injured list a couple weeks ago, the rest of the starters had pitched well enough to not only stay afloat but to look like one of the best in baseball.

“I think our starting pitching has been excellent,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “Obviously, some of the guys that were in the rotation all year — Shota [Imanaga] and Javy [Assad] — have been brilliant, and Jameson Taillon’s been excellent. And Hayden [Wesneski] and Ben [Brown] have come up and been really important both in the bullpen and starting and done an excellent job.”

And that goes beyond Steele’s injury. Taillon missed the beginning of the year with a back strain, and along with Hendricks (lower back strain), Wicks is also currently on the IL (left forearm strain). The injury bug has hit the rotation pretty hard in the first month-plus of the season, yet the starters overall haven’t missed a beat.

“I think all those guys have stepped up and really produced for us, and that’s what you need to get through injuries,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “There’s going to be more. There’s going to be more things that happen, and we just have to be able to withstand those things. The more we can get production from everyone, the better.”

So, when Steele went out to warm up Monday, with the familiar sound of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” blaring over the Wrigley Field speakers, the feeling wasn’t he was returning to provide a necessary boost to a struggling rotation. Instead, the feeling was that a strong starting group was about to get that much stronger by welcoming back its No. 1.

Steele was on a pitch count due to it being his first start in 39 days, so he wasn’t going deep into the ballgame. And even though the game fell the Padres’ way as they put up six runs against the Cubs’ bullpen, leading to the 6-3 loss, the most important thing was seeing Steele pick up right where he left off.

He was efficient, needing just 68 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings. And he was effective, holding San Diego scoreless with just three hits and a walk while striking out two and limiting them to an 83.4 mph average exit velocity on 15 balls in play.

Against a Padres lineup whose wRC+ entering the game (116) ranked third in baseball, it was a good sign that Steele will fit right back into the top of the rotation.

“Felt really good, especially pitching at Wrigley again in front of the fans,” he said. “It’s really awesome just to be back with the team again, in the locker room hanging out with the guys and stuff. It felt really good to be out there pitching, and obviously, the results were good. So, I obviously like that, but as far as how I felt and stuff, I felt really good.”

Counsell called Steele’s performance “a great first step,” and from here, the idea is to build up some more endurance to go deeper into starts.

But again, his start was just another example — in a building line of them — of how strong the Cubs’ rotation has been.

The starters are currently on a 23-inning scoreless streak. Their combined ERA is down to 3.04, the third-lowest in baseball. Basically every game, the rotation is at the very least giving the Cubs a chance to win.

The offense has been in a bit of a funk without Cody Bellinger (two fractured ribs) and Seiya Suzuki (right oblique strain), and that continued Monday as they finished 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base. The bullpen has also had its struggles, and it now holds a 4.81 ERA (25th in baseball) after allowing all six San Diego runs.

Despite some issues in those two very important aspects of the game, the team hasn’t collapsed thanks to strong showings from the starters. In fact, the Cubs remain mere percentage points out of first place in the division.

And now, they’ve added their ace back to keep building on an outstanding showing from the rotation thus far.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” Steele said of the starters’ performance. “I feel like everybody in the rotation that was pitching while I was gone is like top 10 in MLB right now as far as ERAs go. The rotation’s been almost flawless as of late, so you just kind of have to tip your hat. Just a testament to the depth we have.”

“I feel like the strength of our rotation is that we’re just super deep,” Taillon said after his start Saturday. “Like, we’ve got six, seven really legit options, which is super exciting. If you come in to play us for a series, it’s not like you can circle a guy and be like, ‘Man, I hope we get him, miss him.’ It’s like, hopefully, you come in and it’s like, ‘Man, we got three tough guys every series.'”

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