Cubs' Justin Steele channels ghost of Jon Lester past vs. Brewers

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Cubs' Steele channels ghost of Jon Lester past vs. Brewers originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Cubs left-hander Justin Steele has pitched every five days with the ghost of Jon Lester at his back for almost three months.

So when the ghosts of Cubs Lefty past and Cubs Lefty present finally met Sunday, maybe it was no coincidence that the future seemed within sight, if not within reach.

Lester, who spent most of six years pitching like an ace for the Cubs and playing an outsized role in the 2016 championship, received a loud ovation from the Wrigley crowd Sunday when shown on the video board as he watched Sunday’s game against the Brewers with his family.

Perhaps nobody owed an ovation more than Steele, who may have delivered one with six scoreless innings during which he allowed just two singles and a walk — and struck out nine.

“I introduced myself to him before the game,” said Steele, who received some well heeded advice from Lester, through manager David Ross, after a shaky May 31 start against these same Brewers. “We had a quick chat, and I told him I appreciated him reaching out to Rossy earlier in the season. He didn’t have to do that, so it was greatly appreciated.”

On Sunday, the bullpen blew a 2-0 lead after he left, and the Brewers snapped the Cubs’ five-game winning streak with a 5-2 victory. But the last thing that matters with these Cubs these days is whether they win a game (have you heard about this new draft lottery?).

Steele? Hell, he’s a homegrown starting pitcher who not only seems to be sticking — but he’s getting better as he continues to rack up new personal highs in workload numbers this year.

That’s not only important for the tore-it-down, rebuilding Cubs; it’s the rarest of rarities for a front office working on its 11th season running things.

And Steele’s command and dominance against a lineup that included seven righties Sunday probably spoke to the advice he took from Lester that was as simple as it has been effective: pound the righties down and in with the fastball (making the slider and high heat even more effective).

RELATED: How Lester influenced Steele's career-long outing from afar

“I think Jonny Lester being here and that advice, with the fact he’s in the zone … He’s really taken that and really run with that,” said teammate Ian Happ, whose first-inning home run made him the 26th Cub with 100 homers.

Steele has a 2.08 ERA in 13 starts since Ross relayed Lester’s observations, averaging 5 2/3 innings per start compared to four innings per start before that.

In fact, Steele hasn’t allowed an earned run in four of his past five starts, with a 0.86 ERA in 31 1/3 innings over his last six — the lowest ERA in the majors over that monthlong stretch.

“He’s been awesome,” Happ said. “What he’s been able to do, even before the second half — but in the second half what he’s settled into. That’s who he is. That’s who he can be.

“He’s continued to get better.”

And that might be as big a deal as anything else for a club looking for enough reliable frontline and middle-rotation pieces to finally declare this ugly, ownership-driven rebuild is ready for a competitive drive forward again — maybe even enough to inspire the kind of key free agent acquisition that Jon Lester became the last time they exited a tank and launched a competitive run.

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Steele seems to be getting more consistent, if not stronger, later into a season that already includes a career high 113 2/3 innings.

He said he put on more weight in the offseason, between his diet and training regimen, anticipating a longer, bigger workload.

The Cubs are keeping a keen eye on any signs of fatigue while making sure to avoid pushing him under any circumstances — such as the 89 pitch finish to a dominating outing Sunday.

“If he’d have told me to keep going, I would have kept going,” said Steele, who admitted it was more humid than he anticipated during the game.

What’s the ceiling for this fastball-slider lefty with a developing changeup? In performance or workload?

He dropped his ERA to 3.25 for the season as he reached 23 starts.

“I have no idea,” said Steele, who already seems to be achieving “workhorse” status by today’s standards with the look of a six-inning starter. “I haven’t thought about years in advance really. I’m being very present.”

Lester, who once expressed irritation at himself for falling short of 200 innings, might not exactly consider six innings the measure of a workhorse, and might even have another few words to offer on that subject — as Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins has on occasion for Lester’s generation of “workhorses.”

But for Steele’s “present” and the Cubs’ “future,” nobody in the clubhouse or front office seems all that concerned over definitions, as long as this lefty keeps it up.

“From where he’s come from early in the season, it just feels like you’re getting that performance every time he steps foot on the mound,” Ross said.

As for Steele’s ceiling, “The guy we got right now is pretty darn good,” Ross said. “If this is it, I’ll take this spot right here.”

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