Steele's slump continues, Cubs can't catch Pirates -- even with a Happ grand slam
The Cubs can quietly cease any planning for Justin Steele's Cy Young celebration.
The playoff champagne? Leave that in the fridge for now.
Steele has had a great year, but he appears to be running out of steam in late September. He was tagged for 6 runs for the second straight outing and the Cubs lost to Pittsburgh 13-7 on Wednesday at Wrigley Field. Of course, the bullpen didn't help him out by allowing 7 runs.
One consolation for the Cubs is the Marlins and Reds both lost Wednesday, so the Cubs didn't lose ground on the teams behind them in the wild card race. Arizona beat San Francisco, so the Cubs trail the Diamondbacks by 1½ games for the second wild card.
Steele got through the first 3 innings Wednesday with no runs on 6 strikeouts. After the first six batters reached in the fourth, Jose Cuas came in and gave up a 3-run homer to Joshua Palacios, which tacked on 2 more earned runs for Steele.
"That was a funky inning, happened fast," Cubs manager David Ross. "Seemed like the slider flattened out a little bit. They were jumping on some pitches, some pitches out of the zone. Didn't feel like he ever got back to really his strength, that ball cutting in deep on the fastball."
One odd note to that fourth inning was the last five singles the Pirates got against Steele were all with 2 strikes. Steele never fell behind any hitters during that stretch, though there were a few long at-bats. Two were infield hits.
"Just kind of seemed like whether they hit it hard or not, if they put it in play, it was going to find some grass and be a hit," Steele said. "It was just one of them nights. Just kind of have to tip your hat to them.
"When I would get 2 strikes, it seemed like they made an adjustment of just putting the bat on pitches that would normally put them away. They were doing a good job of fouling pitches off, working the count."
This is happening just as the Cubs rearranged the starting rotation to set up Steele to pitch in either the regular-season finale in Milwaukee or Game 1 of a playoff series.
If Steele is gassed, what options do the Cubs even have? They'd like to bring up prospect Ben Brown from Iowa, but his longest outing in September is just 2 innings after being out for a month with an oblique injury. Calling up Cade Horton from Double A Tennessee for a spot start is not far-fetched.
And Marcus Stroman said before Wednesday's game that he thinks he could go 4 or 5 innings in a starting role, even though his last start was July 31.
Steele said there was no health issue causing the high run count, while Ross claimed Steele pitched well in Arizona, and just had a couple of unfortunate pitches that turned into 3-run homers.
In the past two games, Steele's season ERA has gone from 2.49 to 3.00.
With San Diego's Blake Snell throwing 7 hitless innings against Colorado late Tuesday night, it certainly appears that Steele is out of contention for the NL Cy Young Award.
With the Cubs trailing 8-1, Christopher Morel led off the fifth with a long home run onto Waveland Avenue. A few batters later, Ian Happ slugged a 3-1 pitch into the right-center field bleachers for a grand slam, the Cubs' second in two days. Suddenly, the Cubs were within 8-6 and the crowd was alive.
Pirates starter Mitch Keller threw 8 shutout innings against the Cubs on Aug. 25. This time, he was tagged with 7 earned runs in 5⅔ innings, but still got the win.
After that, the Cubs missed some chances. Cody Bellinger and Happ hit doubles and were left stranded, while the bullpen let the Pirates lengthen the lead.
Pittsburgh improved to 2-10 against the Cubs this season with one game left.