Justin Steele delivers another quality start in the Chicago Cubs’ 5-4, 10-inning win against the Pittsburgh Pirates


Even when Justin Steele doesn’t possess his best stuff, he finds a way to give the Chicago Cubs what they need.

Steele kept making adjustments Thursday night at PNC Park, fighting to locate his fastball inside to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-handed hitters and trying to stop his slider from slipping out of his hand at times. He still recorded his 17th quality start behind three runs (two earned) in six innings. Four relievers put up zeros behind him to set up the Cubs’ 5-4 win in 10 innings.

“That’s what we’re expecting him to do,” manager David Ross said. “He’s at that level now that he’s our horse. We’re going to lean on him. Nice job of giving us six.”

The Cubs (67-60) pulled within three games of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and hold the second wild-card spot.

Dansby Swanson’s scored from second on a fielding error by Pirates right fielder Connor Joe coming off Ian Happ’s RBI single in the top of the 10th to provide the second run in the sequence held as the difference in the victory.

“I want to be the guy that we can rely on, that goes out there and gives us good start after good start and be consistent,” Steele said. “That’s what makes a really good starting pitcher.”

The Cubs haven’t been getting enough quality outings from their starters, putting added pressure on a bullpen that got a reinforcement Thursday.

The call-up of right-hander Keegan Thompson before the series opener against the Pirates became the first domino to help an overworked bullpen. Thompson, who replaced optioned right-hander Michael Rucker as the corresponding move, gives Ross a multi-inning reliever who likely will be used in two-inning stretches.

A fresh arm is a welcomed addition with the Cubs’ last nine games being decided by two runs or fewer.

“It’s nice to be able to win ugly,” Swanson said. “It’s nice to be able to win in what would be comfortable fashion, but each and every experience, that obviously shapes you and it continues to build resiliency in this group, which is such a strong trait to have and a good trait to put into a culture. Being able to cultivate that for us right now is really, really good for us. It’ll bode well for us as the year keeps going and obviously the games continue to be tight and more intense.”

The close games have included a drawback too: heavier reliever usage, particularly the back end of the bullpen.

“It‘s definitely taken a toll,” team President Jed Hoyer said Thursday. “This is August, this is the dog days and the guys that feel it the most I think are the the bullpen guys. … We haven’t gotten any really deep starts and we haven’t been blown out and we’re not blowing people out.

“The reality is that if we keep doing that, we’re going to have to rely on guys in high leverage or guys that haven’t closed before and that’s just the reality of having to do that over and over.”

Left-hander Drew Smyly also is rejoining the bullpen, Hoyer said Thursday. The Cubs will need a starter for Sunday’s series finale to replace Smyly. He is back in the pen after allowing seven runs in 3 2/3 innings Tuesday in Detroit — his first start since Aug. 7 following three relief appearances. Left-hander Jordan Wicks, their 2021 first-round pick, could be in play to make his major-league debut Sunday at PNC Park.

Thompson, 28, has been with Triple-A Iowa since the Cubs optioned him May 19 after prolonged inconsistencies. He owned a 4.22 ERA with 14 walks and 16 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings before his demotion.

“It’s been fun to watch the guys come on the streak they’ve had so it’s nice to be back up here and hopefully be a part of that,” Thompson said Thursday of the Cubs’ postseason push.

Thompson’s struggles continued at Iowa, where he surrendered 24 runs, 24 hits and 20 walks and struck out 27 in 16 2/3 innings over his first 12 outings. He also missed five weeks while on the injured list with a back injury from mid-June to late July. The automated ball-strike system (ABS) at Triple A required an adjustment to a smaller strike zone.

“When I went down there, I definitely struggled at first; I was struggling throwing strikes up here to begin with and that’s one of the reasons why I got sent down and then with a smaller strike zone, I struggled with that as well,” Thompson said. “And so it was a little bit of an adjustment, but overall (ABS) was definitely interesting for sure.”

He showed improved command in his last four appearances — all at least two innings — dating to Aug. 9. Thompson issued just one walk in 8 1/3 innings in that span while tallying eight strikeouts and allowing two earned runs.

Thompson couldn’t pinpoint one reason for his decreasing walk rate lately but believes confidence and aggressiveness in the zone have played a role in limiting free passes.

“I just had some ups and downs and struggled a little bit and just needed a little bit of time to work on that and maybe some mechanical stuff,” Thompson said. “I’m just glad to be back up here.”

Recalling Thompson provides a potential boost for a taxed bullpen. Manager David Ross’ three best high-leverage options — right-handers Mark Leiter Jr. (56), Julian Merryweather (55) and Adbert Alzolay (50) — have each exceeded career highs in appearances with five weeks left in the season.

Veteran right-hander Michael Fulmer has been getting more late-inning opportunities in key spots too. But having Thompson back and potentially recapturing his old form would be a huge boost for the Cubs down the stretch.

Thompson was expected to play a valuable role as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen after posting a 1.47 ERA in 12 relief appearances (36 2/3 innings) in 2022.

At this point of the season, the Cubs are positioned to cycle through relievers as needed. More consistent, deeper starts by the rotation would help with that endeavor, though the unknowns of what they can confidently expect out of whomever fills the fifth spot in the rotation adds a wrinkle to the equation. The Cubs are trying to figure out what physical activity right-hander Marcus Stroman can do while sidelined by his right rib cartilage fracture to avoid him becoming deconditioned. He has conveyed to the organization that he believes he will return by the end of the season. Stroman is feeling better but is not yet pain-free and is continuing to follow the rest program from his home in Tampa, Fla.

Right-hander Ben Brown (left lat/oblique) is scheduled to throw a bullpen Friday. If it goes well, the Cubs will have a better timeline of when he could get into a game. Getting him back in any capacity would provide a lift for the Cubs. His 40-man roster status provides another option in September in either a relief role or as a starter, depending on how much he can get stretched out.

It’s remains unclear how much the Cubs can count on right-handers Brad Boxberger (right forearm strain) or Nick Burdi (appendectomy) heading into the final month of the season. Boxberger’s rehab assignment continues with Iowa while Burdi’s is paused as he undergoes evaluation.

Thompson is the first of a variety of options the Cubs are prepared to rely on with 35 games to go. The organization’s next-man-up mentality and effectiveness will be tested.



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