Steele shines, but lackluster offense costs Cubs in loss to Brewers
The starting pitching has been perfect, but run production still needs some work.
Of course, it's not easy to heat up the bats on a 39-degree day at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs wasted a quality start from Justin Steele and lost 3-1 to Milwaukee on Saturday in Game 2 of the 2023 season.
Steele matched the stat line of Marcus Stroman from Opening Day. The left-hander tossed 6 scoreless innings with 8 strikeouts and just 3 hits allowed. The Cubs took a 1-0 lead on Ian Happ's wind-aided home run in the sixth, but the Brewers scored three in the eighth.
"That's as good as we've seen him," Cubs manager David Ross said of Steele. "I thought he threw a phenomenal game."
The offense is a different story. Consider the Cubs have hit .180 as a team in the first two games, but shortstop Dansby Swanson is off to a hot start, going 6-for-8. That means the non-Swanson Cubs are 5-for-53 at the plate (.094). Not great.
Of course, they've faced two of the best pitchers in the National League in Corbin Burnes, followed by Brandon Woodruff on Saturday, so we'll see where this goes.
Happ was frustrated early when he struck out in the fourth after Swanson led off with a double. Cody Bellinger followed with another strikeout and the Cubs obviously didn't score.
"That's part of the game," Happ said. "Woodruff punches 200 guys a year, that's what he does. He has the ability to strike guys out in those situations and does a really good job of bearing down. That's the sport, that's why it's so difficult."
After striking out twice on change-ups, Happ sent a 96-mile-per hour fastball from Woodruff into the front row of the right-field bleachers, capping off a nine-pitch at-bat.
"He's really good and you've got to battle to get yourself a pitch you can handle," Happ said.
On this day, a 1-0 lead had a chance to hold up, but Javier Assad and Michael Fulmer gave up two walks and two singles before William Contreras dumped a soft line drive into right to score 2 runs with two outs.
One important change in Steele's offseason plan is he moved from his native Mississippi to Arizona full-time, which gave him easy access to the Cubs training complex in Mesa.
"It just made sense," Steele said. "As far as the complex and stuff, it made life a lot easier as far as getting the right help I needed, going in and getting my lifts in every day, working hands-on with the staff and whatnot. It made a pretty big impact.
"You always want to start off on a good note. Once I found my groove, I felt good. Next game, start in that rhythm."
Steele used a fastball-slider mix almost exclusively on Saturday. His teammates did a nice job of describing why it worked so well.
"I think the tough part is he cuts his fastball, but he can also throws kind of a straight one that rides," Happ said. "So the fastball kind of turns into two different pitches. Then he shapes that breaking ball in different ways. His ability to keep guys off balance, especially because they come out of the same (arm) slot and he does a really good job with the arm speed."
Catcher Tucker Barnhart got his first start as a Cub and had a nice view of Steele's outing.
"His ability to throw (the slider) for strikes and throw it for chase, throw enough backup sliders to catch the edges, is awesome," he said. "It's a unique mix because you wouldn't typically, in my opinion, throw a bunch of down and in sliders 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 and guys just smother it, hit a bunch of ground balls"
Steele finished with 7 ground ball outs, mostly to the left side. A 16-inning scoreless streak from the starting pitchers is on the line when Jameson Taillon will make his Cubs debut Sunday.