'He's turned into an ace': Steele makes All-Star case vs. Cleveland

June 30th, 2023

CHICAGO -- The standing ovation from Cubs fans began when David Ross walked out of the dugout to make a pitching change.

And when handed the ball to his manager and walked off the mound after a strong performance, the decibel level from a crowd of 32,230 at Wrigley Field kicked up several notches.

Steele tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings Friday, leading the Cubs to a 10-1 win in their series opener against the Guardians that snapped Chicago’s four-game losing streak.

“I thought he was as advertised,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “His fastball's got really good life.”

It was Steele’s latest strong performance in a long list of them dating back to last season. As far as 2023 goes, Friday’s outing further cemented that the 27-year-old is deserving of his first All-Star nod this season.

“He’s been fantastic all year,” said outfielder Ian Happ, a first-time All-Star in 2022. “Consistent, he’s done his job day in and day out and he's been one of the best pitchers in the National League. He deserves to go to Seattle and represent both the Cubs and the National League.”

MLB announced the starters for the Midsummer Classic on Thursday, and pitchers and reserves will be announced Sunday at 4:30 p.m. CT on ESPN.

“It’s crossed my mind,” Steele said of the potential All-Star nod. “It'd be quite the honor. It'd be really cool, another notch on the belt. I just take pride in showing up each and every day when the ball is handed to me and just giving my team the best chance to win the game that day.”

Steele has done that consistently for a while now. Since July 22, 2022, the lefty has a 1.99 ERA in 122 innings across 22 starts. That’s the lowest ERA in MLB over that span among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched.

This season, the Cubs are 9-6 when Steele pitches, and he holds a 9-2 record. He entered Friday with a 2.4 fWAR -- seventh among all starting pitchers and third in the National League, despite missing two starts this month due to a forearm strain.

His 2.43 ERA in 15 starts ranked second in MLB after the Cubs’ win on Friday, behind Shane McClanahan -- who was scheduled to start for the Rays on Friday.

“He's a horse, man,” Ross said. “Every time he takes the bump, he feels like a guy [that] it's Win Day. He loves to take the ball. ... He's been really good, man.

“He's turned into an ace, is what I think he is. He’s proven it.”

Steele showed ace-like poise in the first inning Friday, when the Guardians’ first two batters reached via a hit by pitch (Tyler Freeman) and a Steele throwing error (Amed Rosario), on a potential double-play ball.

Steele retired the next three batters, on a pair of strikeouts and a ground ball, and retired the next nine in order after that.

“The first inning was a little shaky. It was self-inflicted,” Steele said. “But I really liked how I was able to regain my composure and just make some pitches, and I was able to get into a groove after that.”

The Cubs offense backed Steele with its highest output in two weeks, and in one day scored more than they did in this week's three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies.

Nick Madrigal hit his third career home run and first with the Cubs in the sixth inning, and Christopher Morel went deep three batters later. Jared Young went 2-for-3 and hit a triple for the second straight game.

“It started with our starting pitching, [Steele] throwing up zeros," Ross said. "This year, especially, scoring early [and] scoring first, for us, has been a key to some success and getting the ball rolling.”

Steele on Sunday could become the Cubs’ first All-Star starting pitcher since Jon Lester in 2018. He would become their first homegrown starter to earn the nod since Jeff Samardzija in 2014. Samardzija didn’t pitch in the game as the Cubs traded him to the A’s 10 days prior.

And not only is Steele deserving, but fellow Cubs starter Marcus Stroman -- 2.47 ERA (fourth in MLB) in 17 starts -- is too.

“Stro has been fantastic. He’s in the same spot,” Happ said. “They're both top five in the NL in ERA, right? They both really deserve it. Those guys -- it's a 1-2 punch. They give us a chance every time they go out there.

“They've been phenomenal, and it lets us go out and continue to put up runs like this.”