Steele gets back in the saddle, guides Cubs to 5th straight

June 17th, 2023

CHICAGO -- It turns out doesn’t like time off.

He had to leave his May 31 start after three innings with left forearm tightness, but he said within a few days he knew his arm was okay. But Steele was still placed on the 15-day injured list.

“I was starting to drive myself nuts, not being able to get out there and help the team,” Steele said. “Many days, I was finding myself pacing around, especially during the game.”

Steele returned to the mound Saturday at Wrigley Field, playing a key part in the Cubs' 3-2 win over the Orioles, their fifth straight victory. The forearm tightness the put him on the IL is often a precursor to bigger problems for a pitcher, but Steele gave Chicago reason to believe that it was little more than a scare.

He was able to throw several extended bullpen sessions during his time on the IL, so the down time at least physically served as something like a rest period for Steele. Still, he was somewhat limited in his first start back from the injured list. He threw 74 pitches Saturday, holding the Orioles to two runs in five innings.

“It felt good the entire time,” Steele said of his arm during his IL stint. “I was never worried about it.”

Manager David Ross did not say before Saturday’s game that he planned to limit Steele’s pitch count, but when he turned the game over to the bullpen, Steele was headed into the third trip through the order and had given up a two-run, 406-foot home run to Adley Rutschman in the fifth.

Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay picked up the last four innings. They combined for five strikeouts, and Alzolay picked up his fourth save of the season.

“I think the fact that there is a lot on the line fires [Alzolay] up,” Steele said. “I just think he’s that kind of competitor. He’s always had that intensity about him; he wants every pitch to matter.”

Ross has not named an official closer at any point this season, but Alzolay is making his case as of late.

“He’s just maturing as a whole,” Ross said. “I see nothing but a dominant young man that’s finding his spot in the Major Leagues and continues to have success.”

Offensively, the Cubs took a third-inning lead on Nico Hoerner’s two-run double and then manufactured the go-ahead run in the fifth. Yan Gomes led that inning off with a double and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Miles Mastrobuoni, which put him in position to score on a sacrifice fly by Mike Tauchman.

In both run-scoring situations, the Cubs executed timely small ball effectively. In the third inning, Gomes extended the frame by running out a wild pitch third strike, which helped roll the order over to the top of the lineup and set the table for Hoerner's eventual run-scoring hit.

“That’s a hustle play,” Ross said. “Those little things sometimes can pay off. ... Not taking anything for granted is really important in our game.”

And on the go-ahead run in the fifth inning, Mastrobuoni’s sacrifice bunt put Gomes on third. That took executing another detail of the game well so Gomes could get to third base safely.

“You’re just trying to get a good base and catch it with the bat,” Mastrobuoni said.

An effective sacrifice bunt is as much the right mental approach as it is physical execution. Mastrobuoni said a good bunt in that kind of situation takes resisting the temptation to use his arms to move the bat to the ball -- doing that leads to pop-ups -- but also just understanding the situation.

“You know you have to do something to get the runner to third base with one out,” Mastrobuoni said. “In that situation, you’re giving yourself up. That’s why it’s called a sacrifice, in a sense. You know that going in.”

After scoring a combined 38 runs in the first four games of this homestand, the Cubs adapted Saturday. They were outhit by the Orioles, 7 to 4, and struck out nine times, putting those runs at even more of a premium.

The Cubs will go into Sunday’s series finale against the Orioles riding their longest winning streak of the season, with Jameson Taillon on the mound for a chance at completing back-to-back sweeps for the first time this year.