The National League Cy Young award likely slipped from his reach over his past two outings, but Justin Steele has plenty to pitch for in the final week of the MLB regular season.
With the Chicago Cubs holding a one-game lead for the National League's final wild-card spot, the biggest two-start stretch of their new ace's career will begin when Steele takes the mound against the potent Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night. His final start is scheduled to come on the season's final day, against another division winner, the Milwaukee Brewers, in what could be an all-or-nothing conclusion to the Cubs' playoff chase.
"That's what it's all about," Steele told ESPN recently. "I love pitching in big games. Give me the ball."
The 28 year-old's career arc from being selected in the fifth round of the 2014 MLB draft to becoming the pitcher Chicago trusts most with its season on the line has been a slow progression -- and that kind of declaration didn't seem likely just a few years ago, when Steele finished the 2019 season with an 0-6 record and 5.59 ERA for Double-A Tennessee.
After three promising seasons in the low minors to start his career, Steele's 2017 season was interrupted by Tommy John surgery, and like many pitchers coming back from the procedure, he struggled to find his command when he returned. The Cubs showed faith by sticking with Steele despite that ugly stat line, and things finally began to click in 2020 at the team's alternate site for minor league players during MLB's pandemic-shortened season.
The secret to Steele's breakthrough? He perfected his now-signature pitch, a four-seam fastball that has baffled hitters unable to lay off its unique movement.
"Everyone says he throws two pitches, but those two pitches are like five pitches," Cubs closer Adbert Alzolay said. "That's why hitters are so confused when they go up to the plate."
Steele technically possesses a five-pitch arsenal, but his success has come by throwing two of those pitches more than 96% of the time. Paired with a slider he uses to keep hitters guessing, Steele goes to his four-seam fastball 62.7% of the time. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Steele's fastball usage increased from 52 percent to 62 percent in the second half of 2022. His slider from 24 percent to 34 percent. It doesn't leave much room for other pitches.
Any fear of his approach becoming too predictable and allowing hitters to sit on his four-seamer is quickly alleviated with a look at the results: Steele's fastball ranks first in home run percentage (1.5%), second in barrel percentage (13%) and third in average exit velocity (86.9%).
"It's rare in this game to see a guy simplify," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "It's so refreshing to see a young guy go that way. So many guys come up and think, 'I have to add a cutter, I have to add another pitch.' He's gone the other way."
It's not just that MLB-leading usage rate that makes his four-seamer stand out: In a time when a record number of pitchers are lighting up the radar gun with triple-digit heat, Steele's best pitch averages just 91.8 mph.
"He's got a short arm and hides it with a cross body delivery," Pirates outfielder Jack Suwinski said after striking out against Steele. "It'll have some different shape to it. Some cut. Some sink. Some life at the top as well. It's harder than it [the radar gun] says it is."
After declining a commitment to his home state school of Southern Miss., Steele signed as the 139th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Among current Cubs, only fellow pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Azolay have been in the organization longer than Steele.
While Hendricks was already pitching in the majors, Steele and Alzolay became close friends in the low minors as they watched Chicago go from rebuilding to winning a World Series from afar years before getting their chance to pitch for a playoff-contending Cubs team.
"There's nothing that fires me up more than closing a game that Justin Steele has started," Alzolay said.
The bond between the two pitchers strengthened even more during their time together at Chicago's alt site in 2020, when Alzolay was often the encouraging voice Steele needed as he tried to remake his career.
"All you need to do is throw strikes," Alzolay recalls telling Steele. "They don't know where the ball is going to go. They don't know if it's going to sink, cut or go up."
During his rise from an afterthought in the Cubs' plans to pitching at the top of the rotation, Steele has had a chance to receive advice from the man whose footsteps he's trying to follow as the team's written-in-pen Game 1 playoff series starter. After watching one of Steele's starts on TV midway through last season, former Cub Jon Lester jumped on his phone to offer advice to Steele through manager and former catcher David Ross.
Not long after receiving Lester's advice, Steele's career took off. Since July 22, 2022, he's 17-7 with a 2.64 ERA, second lowest in baseball during that time frame.
"One of the main things [Lester emphasized] was establishing the four-seam command, down-and-in to righties on that inner third," Steele said. "Very helpful advice. I watched a ton of Cubs games and always watched him pitch. I learned a lot."
Steele has already thrown 49 more innings than his previous season high, but he has allowed six runs in each of his past two starts, losses to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates during the Cubs' 1-7 stretch in mid-September that denied them the chance to break away in the race for the final postseason spot. Could fatigue be setting in at the most inopportune time?
"I don't think so," Steel said. "I feel great. My body feels great. I feel the way I'm supposed to feel."
Next, his greatest test will come under the bright lights of a playoff race against two squads already assured of doing what the Cubs are still striving for: reaching October.
"It's what I want," Steele said. "The ball in the biggest moments."