'It's quite the honor': Steele reflects on arduous path to Opening Day nod

March 9th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- was summoned to the office of Cubs manager Craig Counsell on Friday afternoon. The time had arrived for Counsell to deliver the news that the left-hander -- coming off his stellar showing last season -- would be getting the ball as the Cubs’ Opening Day starter.

Counsell explained that this was an honor Steele had earned not only for his performance last year, but due to his career journey. As they spoke, the pitcher found himself thinking back on his long path to this memorable meeting. Steele’s story as a homegrown success for the Cubs was not without its pile of obstacles and trying moments.

“It’s not always going to be pretty. It’s not always going to be how you thought of it,” Steele said on Saturday morning. “But sometimes you’ve just got to put your head down, get through the tough times, and the light’s always brighter at the end of the tunnel.”

When Steele takes the mound against the World Series-champion Rangers on March 28 in Texas, the lefty will become the first homegrown Opening Day starter for the North Siders since Jeff Samardzija in 2014. The honor comes after Steele (drafted in the fifth round by the Cubs in 2014) was a first-time All-Star last season and finished fifth in voting for the National League’s Cy Young Award.

The Opening Day nod last year went to righty Marcus Stroman, while veteran Kyle Hendricks was still on the comeback trail from a shoulder injury. Hendricks, who started on Opening Day in the previous three seasons for the Cubs, was thrilled to hear that Steele was going to get the assignment this year.

“It’s such a huge honor,” Hendricks said. “It validates all the things that you've been doing in the past, and it validates what the organization thinks about you and what role they want you to play. Going out as, ‘You're going to be The Guy. We're leaning on you. We're going to be leaning on you all season.’

“Game 1 is tough, because there's so much emotion and energy. He's going to deal with it great.”

Last season, Steele finished his breakout campaign with a 16-5 ledger, plus 176 strikeouts and 36 walks across 173 1/3 innings (30 starts). He was in the conversation for the starting role for the NL in the All-star Game and gave Chicago steady production as injuries and other issues hit the rotation.

That performance came after Steele posted a 2.25 ERA in his final 15 outings of an injury-shortened ‘22. He broke into the big leagues as a reliever in ‘21, as the Cubs balanced his history of various health setbacks in the Minors with wanting to get him MLB experience.

“I didn't know about how special he would be,” Hendricks said, “but [you could see] the competitiveness and the fire from the first time he took the ball when he came in from the bullpen. … There was no fear. You could just tell the look in his eye. He wanted the ball in his hand.”

Now, the Cubs want the ball in his hand to set the tone for this important season ahead.

Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins owns the team’s record for Opening Day starts (seven) and started 11 openers in all over his distinguished career. Jenkins was in camp on Saturday and had a one-word reaction when he learned Steele was going to be this season’s Opening Day starter.

“Beautiful,” he said.

Jenkins said he took a lot of pride in setting the tone for the Cubs’ teams in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“You can't win 20 games unless you win that first one,” Jenkins said with a smile. “[Steele] won 16 games last year. You've got to try to build on that again. Be consistent. Consistency gives you that opportunity to tell the manager you're reliable.”

Counsell already has that level of faith in Steele.

“Justin’s got himself to a great place,” Counsell said. “And it’s something you earn. I think that’s what’s important for the player, and that’s why it’s such a good feeling. It’s more than the day it is, to me. It speaks to what the player has earned and accomplished.”

Steele said his conversation with Counsell is something he will never forget.

“It’s awesome,” Steele said. “Seven years in the Minor Leagues. Not a traditional path. Coming out of high school at a young age and stuff. It just kind of made me reminisce a little bit and appreciate the long road that it took for me to get here.

“It’s obviously just a lot of emotions. It feels great. It’s quite the honor.”