Chicago Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy could tell left-hander Justin Steele was getting caught in between the timing of his delivery.
Steele became out of whack in the first inning of his season debut Saturday against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. Hottovy saw moments when Steele moved either too slow or sped up his delivery as he searched for the adjustment in a nearly troublesome opening frame.
Steele escaped the inning behind a timely double play shortstop Dansby Swanson deftly started with runners on first and second, snagging a 107.4-mph one-hopper off William Contreras’ bat. After a chat with Hottovy between innings, everything clicked for Steele.
“I definitely found a rhythm,” Steele said. “Once I got going, I was in a groove and got comfortable out there.”
Steele completed six shutout innings, scattering three hits, striking out eight and walking one batter. The Cubs failed to capitalize on Steele’s performance in a 3-1 loss. Steele’s start was part of a 16-inning scoreless streak to start the season by the Cubs pitching staff, the second-longest in franchise history.
“He threw a phenomenal game,” manager David Ross said. “That’s as good as we’ve seen him.
“There’s some deception in there, the stuff we can’t measure, and then the late movement. … He’s so tough on lefties with the angle.”
Chicago Tribune Sports
A daily sports newsletter delivered to your inbox for your morning commute.
Only two Cubs had hits Saturday. Dansby Swanson, after finishing with just five hits in 17 Cactus League games, produced his second consecutive three-hit game while Ian Happ homered into the right-field basket in the sixth and singled in the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate. The Brewers rallied with a three-run eighth against right-handers Javier Assad and Michael Fulmer. Contreras’ two-out single off Fulmer to right field with the bases loaded broke the tie. The ball fell in front of Miles Mastrobuoni, who was inserted before the inning as a defensive replacement.
“Looking back on it, you definitely want to dive and leave all uncertainty out there,” Mastrobuoni said. “Maybe a little bit late on the jump, but I thought I had a good track on it. It seemed it kept pushing away from me. … For some reason in my head it told me to shut it down and keep the ball in front of me and not let that extra run score.”
Steele predominately relied on a two-pitch mix against a Brewers lineup he has dominated in his career. In 11 starts, Steele has held them to 12 runs in 48 ⅓ innings (2.23 ERA). His ability to manipulate the pitch shape of his slider, at times producing sweeper or curveball movement, and alter the cut on his fastball creates a more complex pitch profile that challenges hitters.
“It’s a unique mix because you wouldn’t typically, in my opinion, throw a bunch of down-and-inside sliders to right-handed hitters or down-and-in fastballs to right-handed hitters without having some damage every once in a while, but that’s where his stuff works so well,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “Guys just smother it and hit a bunch of ground balls.”
Steele and Barnhart did not alter their approach in how they attacked Brewers hitters as the game progressed. Saturday’s start is another building block in Steele’s development, and by extension, could affect how this season trends for the Cubs.
It’s a testament to both Steele’s stuff and not overthinking what was working Saturday.
“You can make it really complicated really quickly and do it in an unnecessary fashion,” Barnhart said. “I thought he did a phenomenal job of being able to mix both of those pitches he threw — a majority were fastballs and sliders to his glove side. It’s a hell of a start to build on.”