Chicago Cubs left-hander Justin Steele is methodical.
Even when he might not be working with his best stuff or getting drilled by a 100.2 mph liner just above his left knee, as was the case Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Brewers, Steele stuck to his game plan. A heavy dose of his four-seam fastball that he can cut or rise as needed and a slider he can manipulate as a put-away pitch or a harder variation with less sweeping action.
The Brewers had no answer against Steele on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field as the Cubs eked out a 1-0 victory. Steele tossed six shutout innings on a career-high 111 pitches. He scattered six hits, walked one and struck out eight.
The Cubs scored their lone run off Brewers ace Corbin Burnes in the first inning on Cody Bellinger’s one-out ground out.
“Two good horses, two good No. 1s, in my opinion, this year and you’ve got them going out and playing for the division — shoot, this is what we sign up for,” manager David Ross said before the game. “This is what you hope for in spring training. This is as exciting as it gets for me, getting to September and being in this type of race, it’s fun.”
The Cubs (70-62) ended the Brewers’ nine-game winning streak, setting up an afternoon rubber match between Kyle Hendricks and Brandon Woodruff. They have won multiple 1-0 games in a season for the first time since 2018.
It was the type of victory that lets a team dream a little. On a breezy night at Wrigley, the playoff-like atmosphere has been an unknown for some in the Cubs clubhouse, including Steele and closer Adbert Alzolay, who picked up his 22nd save.
“To come out ahead of that game, that’s a growth moment and just proves, like, hey, we can play some of the best teams in league,” Ross said. “I think we know that, but in this environment, that was fun.”
During the top of the ninth inning, a rocking crowd of 33,294 forced Nico Hoerner to max out the volume on the PitchCom in his hat to 20. He previously hadn’t turned it up past level 18.
“I love pitching in that environment,” Steele said. “The fans do a really special job of knowing the situation, knowing what’s at stake, knowing when to get on their feet. I mean, there was a moment in the first inning they were on their feet because they knew a big pitch was coming. That stuff you just don’t really see everywhere else. It’s truly special to pitch for these fans. I loved it.”
Steele stayed in the game after Victor Caratini’s one-out, triple-digit comebacker ricocheted off the muscular part just above his knee left. He described the sensation to a dead leg when somebody takes a knee into the leg and causes it go to out when weight is put on it. Once blood flow started pumping, Steele felt OK. He never thought about coming out of the game, and Ross had no intention to pull him unless Steele told him otherwise.
“As soon as we confirmed that it (hit muscle), I know where his heart is and who he is down to the core,” Ross said. “I wasn’t too worried.”
The Cubs had a couple of chances to add to their lead but couldn’t come through with the timely hit. Mike Tauchman’s five-pitch, one-out walk loaded the bases in the fifth, however, Hoerner lined out to Milwaukee third baseman Andruw Monasterio, who beat a retreating Christopher Morel to third base for an inning-ending double play.
Steele has pitched into the sixth inning in 21 of his 25 starts this year. Two of his shorter outings came when he departed his May 31 start with a forearm injury that required a minimum stint on the injured list and then his first start coming off the IL. Only twice Steele has given up more than three earned runs in a start, and that hasn’t happened since May.
After the first two innings against Milwaukee, Steele realized he needed to change his sight lines when throwing to catcher Yan Gomes because his four-seam fastball was cutting more than usual. So, if he wanted to put the pitch on the outside corner versus a Brewers righty, he needed to start it where a lefty would be standing.
“It ended up working perfectly,” Steele said. “I was able to make the adjustment.”
No matter the quality of stuff on a given day, Steele gives the Cubs a competitive start nearly every time he takes the mound. After Tuesday’s shutdown performance, Steele continues to keep his name in the National League Cy Young Award race. His 2.69 ERA is second-lowest in the majors behind the San Diego Padres’ Blake Snell (2.60) and he is one of only four big-league qualified starters with an ERA under 3.00.
“I can put him in the Kyle Hendricks category with a lot less experience, like, he goes out, very simple-minded, simple approach,” Ross said. “He’s going to do what he does best and he’s seen that work out over and over again. He’s a pretty steady human being.”