Cubs’ Justin Steele got ‘tired,’ lost of command, game vs. Pirates

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‘Tired’ Steele labors in 3-inning start, loss to Bucs originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Cubs starter Justin Steele lasted just three innings Sunday, needing 79 pitches to get that far, and admitted fatigue led to a loss of command during the Cubs’ 4-3, rain-delayed loss to the Pirates Sunday afternoon.

It’s just the latest hiccup for a depth-challenged starting rotation hampered by injury absences and up-and-down performances by its frontline members.

“Going into the first inning I felt really good with the command and changeup and everything,” said Steele (1-2), whose command away to right-handers quickly faded in the second and third innings of the four-walk outing.

“All of a sudden, I just felt there was a bunch of deep counts,” he said, “and I started getting a little tired as the pitch count started climbing.”

He left the game trailing 3-2, and a bullpen that has been a savior for the pitching staff kept it close.

But with the exception of Kyle Hendricks’ dominant, seven-inning start on Saturday — the Cubs’ only quality start of the season — the rotation has not done enough often enough to keep the Cubs’ competitive five series into the season.

The starters’ 5.60 ERA is among the five worst in the majors, their barely visible group WAR also ranks near the bottom, and their 4.4 innings per start also ranks in the lower half of MLB rotations.

Some of that is clearly attributable to veteran starter Wade Miley being sidelined since the spring with an elbow injury that might keep him on the injured list until June and back strain that has sidelined key swingman Alec Mills — who had been penciled into the opening rotation — in April.

Mills, who threw three innings in a rehab start Saturday and has another one scheduled for this week, is closer to returning than Miley — who threw a 50-pitch bullpen session Saturday and is scheduled to throw live batting practice to teammates Wednesday in Atlanta as he begins to build back up.

But none of the missing pieces makes a start like Sunday’s look any better for a promising, strong-armed left-hander expected to deliver better results than a quick-to-fatigue three innings in his fourth start of the season.

“He was just falling behind,” manager David Ross said during an especially short postgame media session after his team lost for the fifth time in six games.

“Walks. Can’t give up free passes.”

Steele, who has 15 total innings to show for the four starts, said he’s confident he’ll make the necessary adjustments during his between-starts bullpen this week.

But the schedule doesn’t get any easier for him or the 7-9 Cubs as they open a three-game series Tuesday in Atlanta against the defending World Series champs before traveling to Milwaukee for a rematch against the defending division champs.

Only to return home to face the White Sox and Dodgers, who are both considered favorites to reach the World Series this year.

“We obviously want to win ballgames, and we want to be better. And I think we are going to be better,” Steele said when asked about the mood in the clubhouse at the end of a tough road trip. “We have a very good team in this locker room.

“We’re a lot better than losing three out of four to the Pirates at home. We’re a lot better than that.”

Proving that figures to start with the starters.

Marcus Stroman, Mark Leiter Jr. and Drew Smyly get the next three shots in Atlanta.

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