Greenberg: ‘Relentless’ Justin Steele leads Cubs to October-like win in late August


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CHICAGO — The closer pumped his fist. The song played. The fans exhaled and then sang and cheered. All was right in Wrigleyville.

With August coming to a close, it felt like October at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night. Even better, it felt like an October from years ago when the Cubs were actually good.

On this night, they scored one run in the first inning thanks to this series: hit batter, double and groundout.

Somehow it held up like a high fly ball into the wind. A 1-0 win over the first-place Brewers on a cool night at Wrigley?

“That felt like a playoff game,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “That’s good for us, right?”

It can’t be bad.

After a series of down years and bad news on the North Side, the playoffs feel like an inevitability for the Cubs (70-62) once again. Milwaukee, which had a nine-game winning streak snapped, has a comfy four-game cushion over the Cubs in the NL Central with four head-to-head games left: one Wednesday and three at the end of the season.

From Aug. 15-27, the Cubs played 12 games against losing teams. They went a respectable 8-4 against the White Sox, Royals, Tigers and Pirates, but they didn’t gain any ground on the streaking Brewers in the Central, going from 3 1/2 games back to 4 before this series.

Milwaukee took the opener on Monday night, but as the Cubs showed Tuesday, it’s not over yet.

The Cubs might not win the division. They probably won’t. They might not even get a home playoff game if they make it.

But they are in second place in the wild-card race with Arizona and San Francisco breathing down their necks. They go to Cincinnati this weekend and the Reds are still in the playoff race too, though they’re fading. The Angels’ waiver-wire garage sale, a pregame discussion point on the field, could end up making a difference in this race. Who knows what September will bring?

Every game is important from here until the Cubs possibly clinch a playoff berth, and Tuesday, as Ross said, was just a perfect preview of the pressure that a meaningful September can bring.

Remember these kinds of nerves, Cubs fans? It’s been a while.

With the Cubs’ Cy Young contender Justin Steele facing Brewers ace Corbin Burnes, this game more than lived up to its billing as a pitchers’ duel.

“This is what we sign up for,” Ross said before the game. “This is what you hope for in spring training. This is as exciting as it gets for me.”

Burnes struck out seven in seven innings, giving up eight hits.

Steele (15-3, 2.69 ERA) gave up six singles and walked one, while striking out eight, in six innings. He threw a career-high 111 pitches.

Steele doesn’t have Jake Arrieta’s gravitas. He’s not walking around in the tattered remains of a tank top. And while his numbers aren’t quite Arrieta circa 2015, Steele is providing this Cubs team with the same kind of mound leadership when it matters. He might not win the Cy Young as Arrieta did, but he’ll be in the conversation.

His teammates are in awe of him, much like the 2015 Cubs were of Arrieta.

“He’s giving you a cutter and a slider and attacking you over and over and over and attacking you on his terms,” said Nico Hoerner, who got hit in the first and scored the game’s only run.

“To get six (innings) was impressive to me,” Ross said. “A career-high in pitches, and he felt like he was building and getting stronger as the game went on.”

“I feel great,” Steele said. “I wasn’t really paying attention to the pitch count.”

Steele battled early, getting out of jams and staying in the game after taking a Victor Caratini line drive off his leg in the second inning.

“I don’t know if anybody has ever gotten dead-legged in school, (where) someone puts a knee into your leg and you kind of limp around for a minute,” Steele said. “That’s kind of what it felt like when I initially put some weight on it.”

He recovered and kept on going. He gave up a single and then got a double-play ball to get out of the second.

Every half-inning felt like it had a do-or-die moment or two. But no one could score. The players felt the tension on the field.

“How the game felt in the fourth was kind of like what a normal game feels like in the seventh,” Hoerner said. “Everything was pushed up.”

For instance, in the bottom of the fifth, the Cubs had the bases loaded. The ballpark, not full — an announced crowd of 33,294 — but filled with fans, got loud. Clapping, cheering, chanting, whistling.

Hoerner hit a line drive, but it was caught by third baseman Andruw Monasterio. He easily doubled Jeimer Canderlario off third to end the inning.

In the top of the sixth, Steele had a runner on and two outs when Joey Wiemer nearly took him deep to left but it hooked foul. The tension built again in the park. Steele now had an 0-2 count and he blew away Wiemer with a 91-mph high heater. The crowd exploded again.

“I loved pitching in that environment,” Steele said. “Wrigley, the fans here do a really special job of knowing the situation, knowing what’s at stake, knowing when to get on their feet. That’s stuff you just don’t really see everywhere else.”

With the wind blowing in, balls that exploded off the bat hung up just enough to find gloves. Steele was followed by Mark Leiter Jr., Julian Merryweather and the team’s budding star closer, Adbert Alzolay. They combined to give up one hit and struck out three.

When Alzolay, who ends every save with a fist pump, entered the game to Akon’s “Bananza (Belly Dancer),” the beat felt infectious. The crowd was in tune, attuned and focused. It was the kind of symbiotic sports environment that can’t be manufactured.

It was at that point I knew Alzolay would close it out, which he did with a 1-2-3 inning.

It was then that I could see into the past and the future simultaneously. Because for the first time in a long time, I remembered what it was like when baseball really mattered at Wrigley Field and I could see it happening again in real time.

(Photo of Adbert Alzolay reacting after the final out: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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