Steele, Alzolay take positive step as Cubs sweep Twins

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs pitcher Justin Steele throws to a Minnesota Twins batter during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Minneapolis.

    Chicago Cubs pitcher Justin Steele throws to a Minnesota Twins batter during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in Minneapolis.

 
 
Updated 9/1/2021 9:54 PM

The Cubs are hoping to build something they haven't had in a long time -- a homegrown starting rotation.

The results have been mixed so far with Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. Steele took a big step forward Tuesday, pitching 5 scoreless innings against Minnesota.

 

This was Steele's fourth major-league start, and he earned his first victory as a starter when the Cubs finished off a 3-0 victory over the Twins. Frank Schwindel provided all the offense with a 3-run homer in the third inning.

Alzolay was activated off the injured list before Tuesday's game and rolled through the final four innings. The Cubs' plan is to use Alzolay in the bullpen the rest of the year to limit wear and tear on his arm in his first full season in the majors.

Alzolay and Steele gave up 1 hit each. Steele walked three, while Alzolay walked none and needed just 40 pitches to get through 4 innings.

Thompson is scheduled to make his third big-league start Thursday against Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field. Rosters expand Sept. 1, so the Cubs activated Alzolay and Dillon Maples, who also was doing rehab in Iowa.

The jury's out on Thompson's potential as a starter, but the Cubs have seen plenty of positives from Alzolay and Steele. When the Cubs were playing well earlier this season, a case could be made for Alzolay as the team's most effective starter. But he gave up a lot of home runs and struggled against left-handed hitters.

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Steele has an interesting skill set, because he can hurl a couple of different sharp breaking balls from the left side and also hit 95 with the fastball.

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy talked about how those guys can take the next step from being really good 90% of the time to winning games consistently.

"I think the biggest thing you learn about this level you don't learn in Triple A and Double A is you can get through a lineup easily with the physical attributes -- the stuff, the movement," Hottovy said. "What takes you from that 90% to 100%, that little difference is the mental side of the game.

"Being able to focus and execute the pitches when you know you need to and not get lackadaisical in your mental approach. I think that's the big difference with guys. Even on the homer you give up, the movement may be the same as the pitch you threw before that he swung and missed, but location, your intent, the mental focus of what you were trying to do with that pitch, I think that's what wavers with guys when they first come up."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Cubs have one of the best examples in major-league history of a pitcher who had lapses as a rookie, then mastered the mental side of the game.

Greg Maddux went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA in his first full season with the Cubs in 1987. A year later, he went 18-8 with a 3.18 ERA. In Year 6, he won the NL Cy Young.

Throwing good pitches is one thing. But at the highest level, pitchers need to learn how to keep hitters off-balance.

"I think it's that fun cat-and-mouse game that I love about pitching, being able to read swings and try to get an idea of what's in his head, what's his approach," Hottovy said. "In the minor leagues, you can get away with, 'Here's my stuff, try to hit it.'

"In the big leagues, it's a little different. A lot of guys have great stuff in this league. The ones that separate themselves are the ones that can make adjustments on the fly and be able to read swings."

In general, the Cubs have to feel good about how they've improved at developing pitchers. They were literally the worst team in MLB as far as using pitchers they signed or drafted in the starting rotation.

They were able to teach Alzolay, Steele and Thompson new pitches that made them more successful. There are more starter candidates in the minors, including first-round picks Jordan Wicks (2021), Ryan Jensen (2019) and Brendan Little (2017).

"It's about creating an environment where guys are willing to learn," Hottovy said. "A lot of teams have the technology and have all the bells and whistles. What's cool about all this pitch data now, it used to be, 'Throw this grip and it will do this.'

"Now we know why. Now we're explaining to them, 'This grip makes the ball move this way because of this.' So guys can now start to learn and manipulate the ball in a different way faster than we ever could. A lot of it was trial and error. It still is to an extent, but it's way more pointed and scientific in how quickly we can get the results we want."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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