Chicago Cubs’ Justin Steele comes off the IL for his 1st start since opening day: ‘Exactly what we needed’

For the last five weeks, Justin Steele could only support his Chicago Cubs teammates and try to keep his arm moving as he rehabbed from a left hamstring strain.

When his return finally arrived Monday night, Steele did his part to keep the rotation rolling in his first start since opening day by tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings against the San Diego Padres in a 6-3 loss at Wrigley Field.

“The rotation has been almost flawless as of late,” Steele said. “So you have to tip your hat and just a testament to the depth we have.”

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Cubs starters have combined for a 3.04 ERA this season, and Steele’s presence gives them another standout arm to rely on.

“I’m excited,” he said. “You want to show up to the ballpark and play each day because you feel like we have a good chance to win each day, especially the way everybody’s throwing the ball. We have a really good team as far as picking each other up.”

Steele had some limitations in his return as he continues to build endurance. He made only two rehab starts in which he topped out at 63 pitches Wednesday for Triple-A Iowa.

“I thought he delivered a great performance, exactly what we needed and a great first step,” manager Craig Counsell said.

Steele’s outing was encouraging as the Cubs slowly get their roster healthy. Right fielder Seiya Suzuki will need a rehab assignment before coming back, and Counsell wanted to see how he got through Monday’s full baseball activities before the next steps were outlined.

Center fielder Cody Bellinger, however, won’t need a rehab assignment. He returned to the Cubs lineup as the designated hitter for Tuesday night’s game.

The Cubs offense has been grinding in their absence. They forced ex-Cub Yu Darvish out of the game after five innings of shutout ball but wasted a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation in the eighth, a prime chance to erase the Padres’ three-run lead.

A six-run sixth was the difference. Left-hander Richard Lovelady didn’t have luck on his side for the three consecutive singles he allowed to open the inning. All three hits had an expected average between .050 and .230.

Daniel Palencia, entering with the Cubs down 2-0 in the sixth, couldn’t get out of the inherited jam. The Padres recorded two singles, a walk and a dagger off catcher Luis Campusano’s bat for a three-run double that built a 6-0 lead.

“We had a chance to get outs and keep that at a two-run game,” Counsell said, “and couldn’t do it.”