Chicago Cubs left-hander Justin Steele instinctively reached his hand out in attempt to snare a ball up the middle.
The ball bounced off it, giving San Diego Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth an infield single two batters into Monday’s game. After retiring the next batter, Steele’s barehanded attempt prompted a mound visit from a Cubs trainer and manager David Ross
The last thing the Cubs needed was another injury to a starting pitcher. Already pitching with a blister on his left middle finger, the ball’s impact bruised Steele’s index finger. When Steele got checked out mid-first inning, the skin was cut off his blister so it wouldn’t tear. But his index finger, which was swollen by the end of his start, was the bigger issue.
“When I tried to catch that thing barehanded, I don’t know what I was thinking,” Steele said. “But I was able to manage the pain a little bit going through the start. After that inning, I went down to the cage and threw some balls into the net. I could feel it a little bit, ripping on the seam, but I thought the pain was manageable so I just kept going.”
Steele didn’t let a bruised index finger derail him. Instead, he delivered one of his best, most efficient starts. Steele held the Padres to one run in seven innings, but the offense couldn’t get going against ex-Cubs right-hander Yu Darvish in a 4-1 loss, their seventh straight.
Had he not gotten hit by the comebacker, Ross would’ve sent Steele back out for the eighth inning since the pitcher needed only 77 pitches to get through a career-high tying seven innings. Steele pounded the strike zone, throwing 60 strikes.
“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,” Ross said. “So, credit to him, kind of a gutsy outing from what felt like where we might be in real trouble with the shortness of our staff.
“We might need to smash him in the finger a couple of times before he starts because that was impressive.”
Steele became the first Cubs starter since August 2020 to pitch consecutive games of at least seven innings with one earned run or less. That previous pitcher? Darvish, who earned the win for San Diego.
How Steele put together a stellar quality start is as important as the outing itself. He threw mostly four-seam fastballs, getting six whiffs and eight called strikes. The pitch accounted for 70% of his pitches thrown Monday, the second-highest fastball Pitch% in his 21 career starts. His previous start on June 5 (71.3%) is the lone outing to exceed it. Steele also mixed in six sinkers.
“When you’re speeding hitters up like that, the secondary stuff always plays up,” Ross said. “You don’t have to be so fine with that. That’s what I saw tonight.”
The uptick in fastball usage is not a coincidence. Steele believes his fastball directly correlated to his high strike total.
“Going into my last two starts, I’ve been really honing in on fastball command with my four-seam and my sinker,” Steele said. “I’m just trying to command the four-seam in and sinker to both sides of the plate and I’ve been doing a good job of it in my last two starts.”
Steele sounded confident his bruised index finger wouldn’t prevent him from making his next start. The Cubs can’t afford to lose another pitcher with three starters currently on the injured list. The team is expected to get clarity this week on left-hander Wade Miley, who reinjured his shoulder in his start after coming off the IL Friday in New York.
Beyond needing healthy starting pitchers, the Cubs must get more consistency . This is an opportunity for Steele to step up. After his awful outing in the Cubs’ 20-5 loss in Cincinnati on May 26, Steele owns a 2.37 ERA in his last three starts.
“Regardless of all that stuff that was going on with the rotation and whatnot, I definitely wanted to keep competing,” Steele said. “I felt like I had my stuff coming in from the bullpen so I definitely wanted to go out there and give them my best stuff. I definitely didn’t want to come out of the game.”