Cubs not worried about Steele's status for Opening Day

March 23rd, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- pointed out that Globe Life Field is the third-closest baseball stadium to where a lot of his family lives in southeast Mississippi. That being the case, the Cubs lefty is expecting plenty of family and friends to make the trip to Texas to see him pitch in Thursday’s season-opener against the Rangers.

Steele is also expecting to make that start as planned, even in the wake of Friday’s scare. A sharp comebacker off the bat of San Francisco’s Luis Matos struck Steele’s left knee and sent the pitcher tumbling to the dirt of the Sloan Park mound. By Saturday morning, the lefty was feeling much improved and was ready to turn the page on spring and set the tone for the season.

“The emotion for me is just I want it to get here and get it underway, you know?” Steele said of taking the ball on Opening Day. “Everybody's excited for the season and you kind of just want to get started on the right foot. So, I'm just kind of eager to get it here, get it underway and play some ball with the boys.”

In the second inning against the Giants, Steele was dropped to the ground by only the fourth batter he faced in what was meant to be his final tune-ahead of his first career Opening Day assignment. The pitcher spun in his delivery follow-through and attempted to reach back to get a glove on the ball.

Steele could not get leather to the baseball in time and was in clear discomfort after being struck.

“Initially it hit my leg and I was like, ‘All right, where’d the ball go?’” Steele said. “And I went to put weight on my leg and it just wasn’t really working. So I just kind of fell down and rolled into it. For probably like 15 seconds, it just kind of seemed like from the knee down my leg was kind of stove up. So, I was just trying to get some feeling back into it and stuff.

“Other than that, once we got back in the dugout and got in the tunnel and started moving around, got some blood flowing to it, it started coming back. I’d just say it’s sore right now, a little bruised up, but nothing to worry about, really.”

After leaving the game, the Cubs announced that Steele sustained a left knee contusion. The pitcher then took to X to let fans know, “I’m okay.. my bracket is not,” poking some fun at his picks for the men’s NCAA tournament.

Cubs manager Craig Counsell was managing his team’s other split-squad road game against the Giants on Friday, and admitted “it was scary” when he got a text about Steele’s early exit. The manager was more at ease on Saturday.

“He's doing good,” Counsell said. “He walked in today in very good shape, bouncing around pretty good. So, [I’m] not concerned.”

During Saturday’s morning workout, Steele played catch up to 120 feet and reported no issues other than some soreness. The lefty noted that he would likely throw a full bullpen session on Monday or Tuesday with a higher pitch volume given how short his outing was against San Francisco.

Opening Day against the World Series-champion Rangers would come next.

“I can pitch,” Steele said.

The 28-year-old Steele was recently named the Opening Day starter for the Cubs. The honor came after the lefty went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA in 30 starts last year, when he was a first-time All-Star and finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting.

The Cubs’ rotation currently projects to include righty Kyle Hendricks, lefty Shota Imanaga, lefty Jordan Wicks and righty Javier Assad behind Steele. Right-hander Jameson Taillon (back) is set to begin the season on the injured list and is not expected to be back until at least mid-April, Counsell said on Friday morning.

Behind that group, Chicago’s backup options include veteran lefty Drew Smyly and righty Hayden Wesneski. Smyly has experience as both a starter and reliever, but was informed this week he would begin the season in the bullpen. Wesneski also remains in camp as a contender for an Opening Day relief job.

Steele is confident he can start as planned. His bracket, however, remains in rough shape.

“It’s not looking good for me in there,” Steele quipped.