Cubs left-hander Justin Steele began strolling off the field before the fly ball to left field came down for the final out of the third inning. Nothing about his demeanor suggested the inning had been a turning point in his start.
Steele, who was challenged early in the season by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy to retire as many batters as he could in three pitches or fewer, had come to expect quick innings from himself.
In the Cubs’ 7-1 loss to the Orioles on Wednesday, Steele’s first game back from the paternity list, he took a couple of innings to regain his rhythm. When he did, however, he retired 11 batters in a row.
”The things that I’ve seen so far with him,” manager David Ross said before the game, ”the evolution [over the past year] is, ‘I found my strengths and been able to home in on that,’ and not searching for changeups and sinkers and both sides of the plate. He’s gotten to his strength and just hammered that and had a lot of success.”
Steele and right-hander Keegan Thompson have shouldered extra responsibility in the last month because the Cubs’ rotation has been hit hard by injuries. Right-hander Marcus Stroman’s and left-hander Drew Smyly’s returns from the injured list in the last week only partially have lightened the load the young starters continue to carry.
Right-hander Kyle Hendricks (strained right shoulder) won’t be back from the 15-day IL soon. Ross said Wednesday he doesn’t expect Hendricks even to start playing catch for at least two to three weeks.
Ross didn’t provide a timeline beyond that. But considering the time it would take for Hendricks to build up and likely go on a rehab assignment, even a middle- to late-August return might be optimistic.
Similarly, left-hander Wade Miley (strained left shoulder) isn’t exactly speeding toward a comeback. He told the Sun-Times he had a cortisone shot in recent weeks, which has seemed to help his progress. But Miley is still on the flat-ground portion of his throwing program.
While their rotation mates have been battling injuries, Steele and Thompson have gone from being the young arms in the rotation to developing into tone-setters.
Steele claimed a rotation spot out of spring training, but Thompson was thriving in a multi-inning relief role to start the season. Ross mused this week about whether Thompson would be starting now if the Cubs’ rotation hadn’t endured so many injuries.
”There’s different stories along the way that are really positive,” Ross said, ”that have come from some of the stuff that the veteran guys being out has shown us.”
Thompson, who is scheduled to start the series opener Thursday against the Mets, has posted a 1.93 ERA in his last five starts.
”Keegan’s earned his right to be in the rotation,” Ross said, regardless of the health of the rest of the Cubs’ starters.
Steele has gone through a similar stretch of success. Since the start of June, he has posted three starts of at least 6 2/3 innings, limiting his opponents to one earned run in each.
Though he allowed four runs (three earned) in the first two inningsagainst the Orioles, his ability to recover, regain his efficiency and get through six innings was a boost to the bullpen. Entering play Wednesday, Cubs relievers led the National League in innings pitched (372).
Steele’s pitch count was approaching 70 through four innings, but he needed only nine pitches to get through the fifth and seven to finish the sixth.