Justin Steele and the Cubs show some fire during much-needed win in Milwaukee


MILWAUKEE — The Chicago Cubs entered Saturday’s contest against the Milwaukee Brewers in free fall. Once eight games over .500 in late April, they’d gone 21-36 over the past two months.

As the losses have mounted and the offense continues to sputter, some have wondered where the fire is from a team that’s remained rather calm during a rough stretch of play. But Cubs manager Craig Counsell doesn’t want anything manufactured. He’s not going to flip tables or scream at his team because that’s not who he is. He has to be himself and he expects the same from his players.

“You want people to be themselves,” Counsell said before the game. “You’re gonna be the best version of you if you have the freedom to be yourself. That’s important. I will stand by that no matter what. If you have a loud player, you gotta let him do that. If you have a quiet player, you gotta let him be that to get his best self out there for him to have the most confidence out on the field and in the clubhouse. I think that’s critically important. Loud team, quiet team does not dictate team success.”

But fans often see a player strike out in a big moment and lose a tough game and want them to show the same anger and frustration they’re feeling. That’s not always the best course of action. And besides, a team that’s just not performing offensively often looks dead when it comes to passion and fire.

“When you don’t hit, that’s a common frame in the history of baseball,” Counsell said. “Every time a team doesn’t hit, that’s what you’re going to hear. I understand. It’s logical. When you don’t score runs, it just feels like a lot of guys coming back to the dugout.”

On Saturday, the Cubs started scoring runs immediately. Two pitches into the game, they had a 2-0 lead and things were looking up. But a dreadful third inning had them looking much like the team everyone has grown accustomed to over the past two months.

The inning started with Sal Frelick singling off Justin Steele just past the glove of third baseman Christopher Morel. An out later, Andruw Monasterio hit a grounder that Steele fielded and seemingly had Frelick, who had stolen second earlier, caught between second and third. But the Cubs botched the rundown and suddenly the Brewers had runners at second and third and one out. Steele then couldn’t cleanly field a bunt by Brice Turang, ruled a single, and one run scored. William Contreras followed with another single to tie the game at 2-2.

Steele was able to strike out the next two batters and keep the Brewers at bay, but as he entered the dugout, that wave of emotion hit him. Marquee cameras caught Steele walking down the steps, then turning to his right and passionately screaming. What he said and who it was directed at wasn’t clear. What was obvious was that the frustration that’s been building for months now bubbled to the surface.

 

“He said something coming into the dugout,” Counsell said. “Like, ‘Let’s go,’ essentially. It was an emotional inning. We played poorly that inning, we made some mistakes and he’s just voicing his emotion from a place of love.

“Any time you say something from a good place, it’s welcome.”

“Let’s go,” is probably the PG version of what Steele said. But it was something many had wanted to see, even if Steele wished he could take it back.

“I should probably do a better job of controlling my emotions on the field in front of people,” Steele said. “Just for kids and families — I have a nephew that watches me pitch.”

Still, Steele agreed with Counsell that it had come from a place of love.

“I love every single person in that locker room,” Steele said. “I know how good we can be. I know what it takes. It definitely comes from a good place. It comes from a place of love, passion and want-to. I want to win baseball games. That’s what I show up every day to do.”

The Cubs would take the lead in the next half-inning but then see the Brewers tie it up again in the bottom half of the fourth. Both teams’ offenses remained quiet for much of the rest of the game — the Cubs ended the game 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, a disturbing trend that didn’t bite them on this day. Finally in the eighth, after Seiya Suzuki led off the frame with a walk, Ian Happ launched his 11th home run of the season — his second in three games — and gave the Cubs a late-game lead.

Happ, like pretty much everyone else, saw what Steele did after the third and understood where he was coming from.

“Guy’s competing and wants to win,” Happ said. “He’s frustrated with how he’s giving up runs there in that situation. He’s giving everything he has out there. He’s been really good for how many starts in a row now? But he’s been competing going deep into games. That’s raw emotion.”

Steele has a 3.20 ERA on the season and has been on a strong run of late, looking much like the pitcher who finished fifth in Cy Young Award voting last season. In his past seven starts, Steele has logged 45 innings and posted a 1.80 ERA. Saturday marked just the third time the Cubs have won a game Steele has started this season.

“I think everybody sees how much he cares and how much he wants to win baseball games,” Happ said. “When he goes out there and competes, it’s nice to see.”

Happ pointed out that one person getting visibly upset doesn’t mean others who don’t react in that fashion don’t care. Not everyone reacts to these moments in the same way. People have different ways of processing anger and releasing tension. Because fans don’t always see it in the dugout or on the field they often assume there’s a lack of passion. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Everybody’s competitiveness manifests in different ways,” Happ said. “There are guys who are calm, even, excited, pissed. There’s all forms of that in this game. You have so many different guys from so many different backgrounds. How it comes off, some of those moments boil over for sure. You see guys get pissed and slam stuff. That happens, it’s an intense game.”

But it’s hard not to notice moments like this from the outside looking in. As Counsell said, when you’re not hitting, it can look like a team doesn’t care. Bad offense often leads to a boring product. It’s hard to get excited when runs aren’t being scored. Not every player slams bats and throws helmets after an unsuccessful at-bat.

Ultimately, that moment from Steele may mean nothing. The Cubs are still six games under .500 and continue to miss out on prime scoring opportunities. A hot streak has to come, but screaming won’t solve the problems. Scoring runs will.

“We won the ball game today,” Steele said. “For me, that was most important.”

(Photo of Tyson Miller: Michael McLoone / USA Today)





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