CHICAGO – Johnny Cash’s ominous voice echoed from the Wrigley Field sound system as Justin Steele threw his warm-up pitches. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” Steele’s walk-out song, sounds different from most of the upbeat music played at the Friendly Confines. It’s also on-brand for a stoic pitcher with a minimalist game plan, someone the Chicago Cubs would trust to start Game 1 of a playoff series in October. That’s where all this continues to trend after a dominating Labor Day performance.
Steele, the homegrown ace the Cubs spent years trying to develop, shut down the San Francisco Giants in Monday’s 5-0 victory, which strengthened his candidacy for the Cy Young Award and showed how his team can win in the postseason. In 89-degree heat, Steele powered through eight scoreless innings, giving up only two singles and finishing with 12 strikeouts while his teammates played good defense and produced enough timely hitting. Most of the crowd of 39,452 lingered in the aisles to sing “Go Cubs Go,” enjoying the rhythms of this unexpected playoff race.
“There’s definitely more energy around the neighborhood,” Steele said. “There’s definitely a different buzz in the air. You can just tell everybody’s really excited.”
The Cubs are 13-1 in Steele’s last 14 starts, a stretch that began with a degree of uncertainty when he was activated from the injured list (left forearm tightness) and the team was still under .500 in the middle of June. Steele’s run includes wins over the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves, the best teams in the American and National leagues, as well as two clutch victories during the eight-game winning streak in late July that convinced the front office to buy at the trade deadline. In recent weeks, the Cubs have won Steele-pitched games started by Charlie Morton, Chris Bassitt, Corbin Burnes and now Logan Webb.
Justin Steele has won a career-high seven-straight decisions! 👏 pic.twitter.com/YTYGpxDrXr
— Chicago Dubs (@Cubs) September 4, 2023
The Giants, a team that hunts for every possible platoon advantage, stacked their starting lineup with seven right-handed hitters, a switch hitter and one left-handed hitter. Steele became the first Cubs left-handed starting pitcher since 1901 to throw at least eight scoreless innings while allowing two hits or fewer and striking out at least 12 batters. The team’s last starter (lefty or right) to check all of those boxes in a game was Jake Arrieta during his 2015 no-hitter at Dodger Stadium, a dazzling performance that helped him win a Cy Young Award.
Cubs manager David Ross doesn’t think it’s fair to compare this Steele snapshot to the body of work that puts Jon Lester in consideration for the Hall of Fame. But as a former catcher, Ross understands the question about another lefty who stays consistent with his routine, knows his strengths, goes into attack mode on the mound and does not wilt.
“Jon wanted the ball in the biggest moments,” Ross said. “Steele wants the ball in the biggest moments. Steele feels like he’s putting us on his back and carrying us wherever we need to go.”
Steele is now 16-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 19 quality starts in 26 outings. He has thrown 152 innings this season, which not only easily clears his career high, it approaches his combined workload from his first two years in the majors (176 innings). He is also 28 years old and in his 10th season in the Cubs organization. After all that effort and planning – from the fifth round of the 2014 draft through Tommy John surgery and a major-market rebuild – this is not the time to slow down or pull back.
Steele flexed and screamed after striking out Patrick Bailey to end the top of the seventh inning, celebrating a three-pitch at-bat that concluded with San Francisco’s No. 5 hitter whiffing on a 93 mph fastball. Steele retired 16 straight batters from the last out of the second inning until the first hitter in the eighth inning. Steele posed on the mound after striking out Mike Yastrzemski to end the top of the eighth inning, taking in the moment following his 107th and final pitch. The Giants, a team the Cubs are competing against in the wild-card race, did not get a runner into scoring position.
“We know what Steeley’s got,” Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said. “He’s got a tremendous heater that sometimes plays as a cutter. It also rises sometimes and we try to play that in between. You know, call a pitch and hope it does what we want it to do. But today was one of the sharpest moments I’ve ever seen from him. I wanted it up, he threw it up. I wanted it down, he threw it down. That helps, in a way, to set up guys and put them away. But the biggest thing with him is the confidence that he’s getting every time he’s going out there.
“Whenever we need him to make a pitch, he makes a pitch. When we need him to get us a couple innings, he goes out there and throws strikes and lets our offense back in. He gives us a chance to win every day. It’s really exciting to have him on our side. I see it when guys are at the plate. They all kind of look at the board to see what pitch it was. And it’s just a fastball and a slider.”
Those two pitches move in so many different directions and with enough variation that it keeps the hitters guessing. The San Francisco offense is also currently unwatchable. But Gomes, who played against the Cubs during the 2016 World Series and caught Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg during the Washington Nationals’ 2019 championship run, knows what an ace looks like. Gomes recognizes how these games reshape perceptions: “September is usually when the Cy Youngs come out. When you’re having outings like this, the voters like it.”
Steele called hearing his name in the Cy Young Award discussion “really cool” and “quite the honor.” It wasn’t exactly Arrieta showing up for his no-hitter news conference at Dodger Stadium in a onesie. It’s not quite the same artistry that Yu Darvish showed while almost winning a Cy Young Award with the 2020 Cubs. It’s nowhere close to the three World Series rings that Lester earned with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox. It took a tremendous amount of patience, hard work and belief for Steele to find his own identity as a pitcher.
“I just want to keep showing up every day and winning ballgames,” Steele said. “I really like where the team’s at. I feel like we’re starting to click on all cylinders. Everyone’s picking each other up when it’s needed. It’s just a lot of fun.”
(Photo: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)