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Justin Steele and other young Cubs starters growing through early struggles

CHICAGO — Willson Contreras took a slow walk out to the mound. Starter Justin Steele had cruised through four scoreless innings, needing just 45 pitches as he largely induced soft contact from a tough Atlanta lineup. But he was laboring in the fifth. Adam Duvall led off with a home run to cut the Cubs lead to 4-1 before Steele whiffed Orlando Arcia, needing nine pitches to do so. The lefty then gave up a single before turning over the lineup and issuing two free passes to load up the bases.

After Contreras headed back to his spot, Steele stood behind the rubber staring back into the dugout, almost as if he expected manager David Ross to come take him out of the game.

“It was in my mind, I wasn’t sure,” Steele said. “We had just had a mound visit and he told (Willson) to come out and talk to me so I thought maybe he was giving the guy in the bullpen more time or something.”

But with his team holding a decent lead and sensing a growth opportunity, Ross stuck with Steele. With the heart of the order up, the young pitcher worked around his self-created jam. In what could have been a disastrous frame, Steele allowed just one more run on a sacrifice fly to Austin Riley and then got Marcel Ozuna to fly out and end the threat.

“I thought it was really nice to be able to work through a little bit of traffic,” Ross said. “I gave him a little bit of a leash there when we had the lead in that space. To have him work through that, that was nice.”

For Steele, it was as simple as wanting to clean up the mess he’d made for himself.

“I definitely wanted to finish that inning,” Steele said. “I got myself in that situation, if someone is going to give up the runs, I want to do it. I put myself in that situation and I wanted to get myself out of it.”

The Cubs aren’t fighting for a playoff spot, but rather barreling towards another sell-off at the deadline. So it’s little moments for players like Steele that they need more of in order to point towards a brighter future. Steele didn’t overwhelm the opposition and deliver a dominant performance, but he also didn’t break in what turned out to be one of the more critical moments in the game.

It would have been easy to write Steele off earlier this season. Through his first six starts, Steele completed five innings just once, three times failing to get more than nine outs. His ERA stood at 5.32 and there were those calling for him to lose his rotation spot to Keegan Thompson, who was thriving out of the bullpen in a multi-inning role.

But since then, Steele has had just one truly poor outing, posting a 3.65 ERA over seven starts, going at least five innings in six of those outings. The last three of those starts have all come against quality opponents, teams that look headed towards the postseason.

Thompson eventually made his way into the rotation as well. After four starts — which were split up by one multi-inning relief appearance — Thompson posted a solid 3.26 ERA. But then disaster struck. He gave up seven runs in three innings to a bad Baltimore team and then five days later failed to get out of the first in the Bronx, giving up five runs (three earned) against a stacked Yankees lineup. He looked overmatched and seemed to be searching for answers. But by his next outing against Atlanta Friday, he’d found them as he tossed six shutout frames, allowing just two hits while striking out nine. It was the best start of his career and came just as some seemed ready to give up on him in that role.

“You have a couple bad outings and you just gotta flush it,” Thompson said. “Everyone has tough stretches. The season is kind of up and down. You’re not always going to throw your best out there. You gotta get outs with what you have. But those good outings help build your confidence back up.”

This is the rollercoaster ride one has to get accustomed to when watching young players try to find their way in the big leagues. It’s very easy to look at these young starters the Cubs are sending to the mound and write them off after every poor outing. But baseball is littered with pitchers who took time to find their best selves. Friday’s starter for Atlanta, Charlie Morton, didn’t have a 3 WAR season (according to FanGraphs) until his age-33 season and then doubled that mark at 35. After a few solid years, Joe Musgrove, who worked seven strong innings against the Cubs on Thursday, is breaking out as a star for the Padres at 29.

Yankees lefty Jordan Montgomery has finally found consistency in his sixth season in the big leagues. His teammate, Nestor Cortes, is now on his third stint with the Yankees and looks primed to be the AL All-Star starter. A glance at MLB’s ERA leaders shows a litany of names that give a good representation of how bumpy the road to success can be: Martín Pérez, Paul Blackburn, Jameson Taillon, Kevin Gausman, Corbin Burnes and on and on.

Some were top prospects who struggled to find their footing early in their careers, only to blossom later than expected. Others were never really on anyone’s radar and made tweaks to their pitch mix or delivery and suddenly are thriving. Finding success can take time and development takes so many forms.

“You’re definitely not going to have success every time out there,” veteran Kyle Hendricks said. “I heard that from (Jon) Lester, (John) Lackey and those older guys that were around. If you’re around long enough, you’re going to get beat, you’re going to give up 10 runs or something and have some really bad games. That’s just what happens.”

Hendricks himself had down moments early in his career. He came up in 2014 and seemingly breezed through 13 starts, posting a 2.46 ERA. But in 2015, while his team surprised, he struggled with an ERA pushing 4.00 as his lack of swing-and-miss started to catch up to him. But he worked, he made adjustments, listened to coaches who gave him information on how best to succeed and eventually in 2016 he broke out with a third-place Cy Young finish and began a stretch of five-straight seasons where he was one of the most consistent starters in baseball.

“It was having the support staff around me to just stay in my ear,” Hendricks said about finding consistency. “(We focused on) the things I was doing well and just building that confidence. I had people around me pointing out the good things and (with) the things that were going bad, we just went about it the right way.”

Thompson thought he identified some issues after the start against the Orioles, but couldn’t fully rectify the issue by the time he pitched again in New York. But the work eventually paid off and Friday’s outing was the result.

“Put the work in that you’re supposed to do and you’re going to be prepared for the game,” Thompson said. “Sometimes things happen in the game where you get thrown off your game plan. That may have been what happened the couple games before. But we did a lot of work between games and got back to what I was doing well. So you focus on that.”

These random bursts of good outings and bad outings won’t be enough in the long run, of course. Consistency is the great separator in baseball. Take a look at Ian Happ on the offensive side. The Cubs outfielder has put together months in his career where he looked like an MVP candidate and others where he appeared nearly unplayable. But this season he seems to have finally become a more consistent producer, the type of player a manager can feel comfortable putting in the lineup on a daily basis and know what they’ll get. Very few players can produce at a high level for six months straight. Even Mike Trout slumps. But it’s about avoiding the deep valleys and really riding the highs when they come.

Ross believes it’s about experience, having success to build one’s confidence and pushing through tough moments in order to learn how to adjust which really helps lead to consistency.

“That’s why I think adversity is so important,” Ross said. “You go through a little bit and come out on the other side and you learn, ‘Oh, here’s where I got away from what I do well, here’s where I got off track.’ There are instances in major-league baseball where the league adjusts and you gotta adjust back. That’s going to be there as long as guys are at this level.”

After Thompson’s rough two outings or Steele’s slow start to the season, it would have been easy to just push them back into the bullpen where they’ve shown they can thrive. Being worried about Caleb Kilian after one bad start is something fans can do, but Ross and his staff need to use it to learn and try and help the young starter improve. But it’s not easy to know when to keep being patient or when it’s time to find a role that may be more suitable for a player’s skillset.

“It’s hard,” Ross said. “R&D will scream small sample at you, which is real. You also have to trust your experience and your eye. That’s where we lean on all areas and have those conversations. I think the great thing about the R&D side of things, the analytical side of things, there are underlying numbers at times that may paint a different picture and you have to pay attention to those outside of this guy has gotten hit his last five times out and you have to overhaul his entire delivery, his pitch mix, the shape of his slider.”

Ross said doing that can lead one down a rabbit hole and ultimately take a player off the path to success. The goal is to find the underlying positives and negatives, not just focus on the results. Like with anything in the game, it’s not about what happened, but rather understanding why and how, then addressing those issues directly. Thompson is a better pitcher overall this year due to how he uses his body during his delivery, which has helped how all his pitches perform. Steele has better learned how best to use his pitches and what moments require a strikeout and when soft contact may make more sense. Getting experience now for Kilian — whether that means immediate success or not — should help him thrive down the road.

Not every pitcher is going to come out of the gate dominating. There will always be surprises and assuming anyone really knows what the Cubs have in these young arms because of a handful of starts would be a mistake. The Cubs aren’t going to the postseason this year, but if they can find some pitchers who can help them get there in the future, perhaps it won’t be a lost season after all.

“If a guy has success at this level,” Ross said, “and then has a couple of bumps in the road — which is natural and we have to understand that — we have to give them the runway to experience that.”

(Photo of Justin Steele: David Banks / USA Today)

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