Why Justin Steele earning the Chicago Cubs’ opening-day start validates the lefty’s journey: ‘He just keeps getting better’

MESA, Ariz. — Justin Steele couldn’t help but reminisce about his journey to the majors.

His contemplative mood was inspired by a meeting with Craig Counsell in the Chicago Cubs manager’s office Friday afternoon where Steele was informed he would start on opening day March 28, the first of his career, on the road against the Texas Rangers.

To that point, the 28-year-old lefty wasn’t focused on whether he might get the ball for the opener. But once that became his reality, Steele looked back on his path to this moment. Counsell told him to be proud of what he has accomplished as he enters his fourth big-league season. Steele called it an awesome conversation and “something I’ll never forget.”

“It’s a reflection of what a player has done throughout his career and where he’s built himself to,” Counsell said. “Justin’s got himself to a great place and it’s something you earn.”

Steele spent seven years in the minors, which included Tommy John surgery in 2017, before receiving his first major-league call-up in early April 2021.

“It’s not always going to be pretty, it’s not always going to be how you thought of it, but sometimes you’ve just got to put your head down, get through the tough times,” Steele said. “The light’s always brighter than the tunnel.”

Kyle Hendricks knows what Steele will be feeling on opening day in the lead-up to taking the mound in Arlington. The veteran right-hander started three consecutive opening days, most recently in 2022.

“Clearly no one more deserving or even close to it in this group, I’m so happy for him,” Hendricks said Saturday. “Seeing his path has been pretty amazing. Showing up, the competitiveness and the fire, you always saw it in there, but making the transition, being that consistent starter now taking the ball every fifth day — we know exactly what we’re going to get out of him. That’s such a luxury to have in the game today.”

Steele’s journey from fifth-round pick in 2014 to opening-day starter coming off a performance that put him in the Cy Young Award conversation for most of the season embodies how careers are rarely linear. He can be an example to younger players in the organization to the value of perseverance and grinding through challenging injuries.

“Those are the things that I had that made me the pitcher that I am, the person I am so having the right things to follow, knowing how to be a pro, going about the work,” Hendricks said. “He’s just done it all, man, done it all the right way. He just keeps getting better, which is still fun to watch.”

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Hendricks said opening-day starts bring a playoff-like atmosphere stemming from fans’ anticipation of returning from a long layoff, describing it as a unique day. The key is sticking to the routine even amid the pregame hoopla and emotions.

“He’s been through hell at this point, we’re not worried at all,” Hendricks said. “That’s why he’s the guy for it.”

Steele’s big-league success is a developmental win for the Cubs, and they will need to uncover more this season and the coming years to build sustained success. Internal improvement can be the difference between winning and losing. Those X-factors like Steele must emerge.

Hendricks knows it’s easy to say now, but he could see Steele possessed elite characteristics during his 2021 rookie season. His fiery competitiveness, especially coming out of the bullpen, was undeniable.

“There was no fear, you could just tell the look in his eye,” Hendricks said. “He wanted the ball in his hand, he wanted to be on the mound. And sometimes that’s the hardest part of it.”