Cubs lefty Justin Steele tested his left knee again behind the mound as manager David Ross headed back to the dugout, satisfied that his ace felt good enough to stay in the game.
Steele had just been hit in the leg by a line drive. But he was going to play through it, preserving the marquee pitching matchup in a consequential National League Central rivalry series.
“Two good horses going at it, two No. 1s in my opinion this year,” Ross said before the Cubs’ 1-0 win Tuesday, “and you’ve got them going out and playing for the division. Shoot, this is what we sign up for. This is what you hope for in spring training. This is as exciting as it gets for me getting to September and being in this type of race. And it’s fun.”
The Cubs had Steele, their up-and-coming Cy Young candidate on the mound. And the division-leading Brewers were relying on Corbin Burnes, a three-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner who has helped fortify the Brewers pitching staff’s strong reputation for years.
Steele edged out burnes in the duel, with a large dose of perseverance.
The Brewers made Steele work in a scoreless first inning. He walked Christian Yelich, the first batter he faced. He allowed just one hit, but he worked into so many deep counts that he’d thrown 29 pitches by the third out.
The Cubs offense rewarded Steele’s efforts with a lead.
Burnes hit the Cubs’ Nico Hoerner with one out in the first inning. Then, Ian Happ hit a double off Burnes, and Hoerner sprinted to third. From there, he easily scored on Cody Bellinger’s groundout to second base.
Steele came in the next inning and worked quickly to strike out Joey Weimer on three pitches. Then, his second pitch to Victor Caratini hung over the plate. Caratini struck the slider hard, sending the ball careening back toward Steele at 100.2 mph.
Steele tried to swing his glove in front of his left leg, but the ball struck him just above the knee. Steele chased after the ball as it rolled across the infield grass and into foul territory. Caratini reached first base in plenty of time.
As soon as the play was over, an athletic trainer ran out to check on Steele. The pair made their way back to the mound, with Ross in tow. Steele flexed his knee and pointed to the point of impact. He took a few practice throws off the mound and stayed in the game.
From that point on, only two Brewers runners made it past first base and none reached third. Cubs defensive highlights included a double play to end the second inning, a sliding catch from center fielder Mike Tauchman and a catch from left fielder Ian Happ as he leaped into the ivy.
Steele generated eight whiffs with his slider and six more with his fastball. As his pitch count climbed, his velocity ticked down. But he was still pitching with authority.
With two outs in the sixth inning, Joey Weimer sent a long fly ball past the foul pole. Steele didn’t flinch. In a 1-2 count, he threw a heater up and out of the zone. Weimer swung hard and missed for strike three.
It was Steele’s 111th pitch of the night, a career high.
The Cubs started a couple potential rallies against Burnes in later innings, but the right-hander shut them down. He allowed just one run in seven innings.
Steele made that run count with his six shutout innings. Cubs relievers Mark Leiter Jr., Julian Merryweather and Adbert Alzolay completed the shutout.