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CHICAGO — For three innings on Wednesday night, Cubs lefty Justin Steele looked like the pitcher who has earned a place in the National League Cy Young Award conversation this season. He was running through the Pirates’ order, looking the part of the rotation leader who has helped keep Chicago in this postseason chase.
Then, things came apart at the seams.
“It happened fast,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
A flurry of six consecutive hits to open a seven-run fourth inning created enough of a snowball effect to send Steele and the North Siders to a 13-7 loss at Wrigley Field. It was a rare clunker for the left-hander, but this one came as Chicago is searching for firmer footing in the October picture.
The Cubs have dropped nine of their past 12 games, which includes two recent starts by Steele that each include six runs on his pitching line. In the wake of those two appearances, Steele’s ERA has climbed to 3.00 from an MLB-leading 2.49, tossing a potential late-season wrench into his Cy Young candidacy.
Not all performances are created equal, though, and Ross was not about to slap the “bad start” label on both appearances by the lefty. The way Ross viewed things, the six runs surrendered in Arizona in Steele’s previous outing were skewed by the two pitches that resulted in three-run homers.
This time, the manager saw a slider that “flattened out” on the pitcher and a Pirates team that found ways to get balls in play after striking out six times in the opening three frames.
“They were jumping on some pitches — hit some pitches out of the zone,” Ross said. “Six straight hits, the alarm goes off a little bit, like, ‘What’s going on?’”
The Pirates pieced together six straight singles — two that did not leave the infield — to chase Steele before he could record an out in the fourth inning. Three of those hits generated four runs, and then Steele’s line received its finishing touch when reliever Jose Cuas surrendered a three-run homer to Joshua Palacios.
“It just kind of seemed like whether they hit or hard or not,” Steele said, “if they put it in play, it was going to find some grass and be a hit. It was just one of those nights.”
The Cubs, who have had a knack for dramatic comebacks this season, tried to make it one of those nights when the lineup rendered a starter’s rough night moot.
In the fifth inning, Christopher Morel got things started by launching a pitch from Pittsburgh’s Mitch Keller over the left-field bleacher seats and onto Waveland Ave. At that point, the Friendly Confines began to buzz with the possibility of a dramatic swing in momentum.
“Good energy in the stadium,” Cubs left fielder Ian Happ said. “The dugout was excited.”
Chicago continued to put the pressure on Keller, culminating in Happ working into a 3-1 count with the bases loaded. The right-hander was forced to go into the zone with his four-seamer, and Happ did not miss. He sent the ball rocketing into the bleachers in right-center field, sending the fans into a frenzy as the Pirates’ lead slipped to 8-6.
Cody Bellinger followed by ripping a pitch off the bricks and ivy in center for a double, but that was where the Cubs’ push stalled out.
“We were close right there,” Happ said. “Cody at second base. We weren’t able to get him in, but we put up seven runs today. The offense had some really good at-bats and some hard-hit balls that didn’t get down. Another good performance.”
Following Steele’s exit, the Cubs’ bullpen yielded six more runs, making a comeback even more improbable. Happ said the key now was the same as it has been all season: turning the page quickly and getting this October push back on track.
“You’ve got to move on,” he said.
The same applies to Steele, who has two more starts remaining, including a potential outing in Game 162 against the Brewers with playoff positioning on the line.
“He’s been fantastic all season,” Happ said. “He’s right in the Cy Young race. He’s one of the best starting pitchers in the National League this year. He’s been steady for us. He’s been the guy. We’ve relied on him all year and he’s been fantastic, and we’ll continue to rely on him moving forward.”