Chicago Sun-Times


- Maddie Lee

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs left-hander Justin Steele was thrown into the fire against a fierce lineup in his first spring-training game. The heart of the Padres’ batting order Friday had Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz and Matt Carpenter one after another. At the top were Jake Cronenwort­h and Trent Grisham, who were plenty familiar with Steele from the minors.

“I felt good,” Steele said after doing his part in the Cubs’ combined no-hitter in a 4-0 victory. “If I do that all year, I think we’ll be in a pretty good spot.”

Steele retired all six batters he faced. He had missed his first start with arm fatigue, but his offseason work and his efficiency against San Diego made it possible for him to throw two innings, then head to the bullpen to toss about 25 more pitches.

“This will be the first season where he’s building up for this type of journey and carrying us hopefully throughout the season and into the postseason,” manager David Ross said. “So he’s one of those guys we’re gonna rely heavily on, and he put in the work in the offseason to be that guy.”

Steele is coming off his first full season in the rotation. He made developing his changeup a priority in the offseason.

“But if he continues to build off just having that four-seam [fastball], slider in to righties, away to lefties and building off that, he’s pretty darn valuable and had a really good season on that,” Ross said.

Steele didn’t throw any changeups because he sped through two innings too quickly. But he estimated seven to 10 of the pitches he threw in the bullpen after his outing were changeups.

“It’s in a really good spot right now,” Steele said.

A former catcher, Ross has noticed a trend in starters’ developmen­t after getting their first full season.

“It’s an evolution about being a bigleaguer,” he said. “You grow, and you learn how to pitch. But when you have the stuff that he has and can get hitters out in the zone with really a two-pitch mix, there’s the value. And then you learn how to locate that better, you learn how to backdoor certain things, different sides of the plate, different quadrants within the strike zone, then also other pitches as they develop.”

Last year, a piece of advice from Cubs legend Jon Lester helped Steele find his stride. Through Ross, Lester emphasized establishi­ng the four-seamer down and in to right-handed hitters.

Ross has been trying to get Lester out to spring training this year and said Lester wants to make it work.

“I’m a little confident we can make it happen,” Ross said. “Fifty-fifty, is that confident?”


“I think it’s great. I think it’s going to take a lot of people time to get used to it. I think it’s going to be a non-story as we get into April, but I think it’ll be a story early on because it does take adjustment­s — both pitchers and hitters and, frankly, umpires. We had a long meeting [Wednesday] with MLB, and I don’t envy the umpires. They’re trying to call balls and strikes and also manage a completely new game.” — Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer on rule changes ✶

 ?? JOHN ANTONOFF/SUN-TIMES ?? Justin Steele

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