Justin Steele returned after a brief stint on the 15 day IL and looked sharp as Cubs win back to back series
Words by Eugene McIntosh
The question of the day was what would Justin Steele look like after a 15 day IL stint? His last start was May 31 and Steele resembled a guy who hadn't missed a beat. His command was there and he picked up win number 7 of the year as the Cubs kept their perfect home stand in tact with a 3-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles in front of a season high 40,605 fans.
"I felt really good," Steele said. "I felt like I had command for the most part of all my pitches throughout the outing. I felt like I was getting into a groove as it was going on. I was getting more comfortable but it felt really good to get back out there."
Manager David Ross didn't say there was a pitch limit for Steele in his return but they definitely kept it on the cautious side. Steele went five frames allowing five hits and two runs while fanning four on 74 pitches.
He admitted being on the mend started to drive him crazy and he just wanted to get back out there with his guys. "For me I was just kinda starting to drive myself nuts not being able to get out there and help the team. Many days I just found myself pacing around especially during the game not knowing what to do."
Nico Hoerner extended his hitting streak to six games as his two out two RBI double in bottom of 3 gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead and Steele some comfort. Steele didn't make many bad pitches in the outing but his worst came in the top of 5. With two outs and Orioles left fielder Austin Hays on first, Baltimore catcher and leading vote getter for backstops in the American League Adley Rutschman took an 83 mph slider down the chute 406 feet into the left center field bleachers to tie the game at 2. (Steele hadn't allowed a home run in 53 innings which was the longest streak in MLB)
The Cubs came right back in the bottom of the inning with what I would call "successful situational baseball." Yan Gomes led off with a double, a Miles Mastrobuoni sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly RBI by Mike Tauchman scored Gomes to put the Cubs back on top 3-2.
Steele turned it over to the bullpen and that was all she wrote. Probably David Ross' three most reliable arms on the back end, the combination of Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay shut the door throwing four scoreless frames allowing two hits and striking out five.
There wasn't much stability for the pen early in the season but Ross thinks they're turning a corner at a crucial time.
"It feels good. I mean those guys..I think for a little while now most of those guys have thrown the ball a lot better. [Michael] Fulmer's stepped it up. I think Merryweather is the one who's really solidified some things. Leiter's been throwing good all year. Adbert at the back end has really been successful but Merryweather does a nice job of getting us to those guys and holding it there at those middle innings when it can be a little tough," said Ross.
The Orioles threatened in the top of seven but a spectacular sliding play by Nico Hoerner with runners on first and second on a Gunnar Henderson ground ball in the 3.5 hole saved a run keeping the Cubs lead in tact.
Alzolay appeared in the top of 9 protecting the Cubs one run lead. Pinch hitters Adam Frazier and Josh Lester struck out swinging and after a walk to Hays and an on-field delay, he got Rutschman to ground out to end the game. That is Alzolay's fourth save in as many opportunities and Justin Steele thinks Alzolay lives for the big moments.
"I think the fact that there is a lot on the line really fires him up. I just think he's that kind of competitor. I think he's always had that intensity about him. He wants every pitch to matter. Adbert's really coming into his own out there. As we all know that's one of my great friends ever since I got drafted so to see him really just dominate down there every time he comes in the game, you know you're getting his best."
That's five wins in a row and the Cubs have now won seven of their last eight moving to within four games of .500. They've gained momentum since returning home after a 4-6 west coast road trip scoring 41 runs in the last five games. The offense as a whole is swinging the bat well showing great plate discipline and a balance of patience and aggressiveness staying within their approach.
The Cubs can make it a home stand sweep tomorrow afternoon on Father's Day. It'll be Jameson Taillon (2-4 6.70 ERA) on the hill for the Cubs versus Dean Kremer (7-3 4.784 ERA) for the O's. First pitch is 12:05.