Cubs lefty Justin Steele dodged the line drive that the Pirates’ Liover Peguero sent through the space Steele’s head had just occupied. Steele’s left hand shot up, as if by instinct, but luckily the ball appeared to miss that too.
It bounced behind the base, and second baseman baseman Nico Hoerner went diving after it, making a heroic stop. But his rolling flip to second was a split second too late to get the out.
Peguero was the last batter Steele would face Wednesday in what became a 13-7 Cubs loss.
The way Steele has been pitching, it seemed almost inevitable that he’d work out of the fourth-inning jam. But one Pirates hitter after another battled into deep counts and found a way to put the ball in play and get on base. After six straight singles and no outs in the fourth inning, manager David Ross came out to take the ball from Steele.
“Six straight hits, the alarm goes off a little bit,” Ross said, “like, what’s going on?”
A rally by the offense, which included a solo homer from Christopher Morel and a grand slam from Ian Happ, barely softened the blow as the Pirates continued to tack on against the Cubs bullpen.
Steele, who entered Wednesday as a strong National League Cy Young candidate, has been charged with six runs in each of his last two starts. But the games played out differently. In Arizona on Friday, Steele gave up a pair of three-run home runs, one in the first inning and one in the sixth, but was efficient in between.
On Wednesday against the Pirates, Steele threw three scoreless innings and recorded six strikeouts to start the game but failed to get an out in the fourth. It was the first time since the end of May that he hadn’t pitched through the fifth. And a forearm strain shortened that three-inning start on May 31.
Cy Young race aside – Steele’s case obviously took a hit on Wednesday – the Cubs have been leaning on Steele all season. And they need him at his best in the final weeks of the regular season with the NL Wild Card race still tight.
Steele likely has two more starts left on the schedule, and he’s lined up to pitch the regular season finale in Milwaukee.
“He’s been fantastic all season,” outfielder Ian Happ said. “He’s right in the Cy Young race. He’s one of the best starting pitchers in the National League this year. He’s been steady for us. He’s been the guy. We’ve relied on him all year, and he’s been fantastic. And we’ll continue to rely on him moving forward.”
On Wednesday, Steele began his outing with a quick three-pitch strikeout. He stayed aggressive in the strike zone and gave up a single and double in back-to-back at-bats before escaping without allowing a run thanks to two more strikeouts. The next two innings, he faced the minimum. Then came the fourth inning.
“When I would get two strikes, it seemed like they made an adjustment of just putting the bat on the pitches that would normally put them away,” Steele said. “They were doing a good job of fouling pitches off, working the count.”
Ke’Bryan Hayes began the Pirates rally by jumping on a first-pitch fastball from Steele. The next five hits Steele allowed were in two-strike counts.
The longest battle was Henry Davis’ nine-pitch at-bat. The last pitch Steele threw to him, a high fastball, was the furthest he’d gone off the plate in the at-bat. Davis got his bat head out to it for an opposite-field two-run single. Then, Peguero kept the streak of singles going, in a 1-2 count, to end Steele’s outing.