Justin Steele is building on his progress toward the postseason as Marcus Stroman eyes his return from the IL

Each year Justin Steele’s big-league experience has served as a building block for the next season’s workload.

He learned in 2022, his first season as a full-time starter and third in the majors, what goes into physically and mentally getting through the long season and how he needs to prepare in the offseason to pitch into October. His foundation will be tested over the next several weeks.

Steele’s five innings in Saturday’s 5-4 win against the Toronto Blue Jays continued to add to his career-high innings. Through 22 starts, two short of last year’s total, Steele has thrown 126 innings — seven more than he completed in 2022.

The Cubs’ offense took advantage of Steele and the bullpen keeping the game close. Cody Bellinger tied the game in the fourth, part of a four-run inning, when he dropped down to almost one knee to take a low pitch off the right field wall for an RBI single. Dansby Swanson followed with a three-run homer to put the Cubs ahead, 4-1.

The Blue Jays chipped away at the lead, tying it in the sixth. But as he has often, Bellinger set the tone in the ninth with a leadoff double and scored two batters later on Christopher Morel’s double. Adbert Alzolay’s perfect ninth produced his 16th save of the year.

“Belli has been our most valuable player,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

The Cubs (61-56) are keeping close tabs on Steele’s data and how he feels as they enter the stretch run to the postseason. They can utilize off days to help give the 28-year-old lefty additional rest. He entered Saturday’s start with an extra day between outings thanks to Thursday’s off day. Steele’s fastball featured nearly a 1 mph increase over average Saturday, topping out at 95.4 mph.

Steele believes getting one more day of rest helped against Toronto.

“I feel like I’m in a good spot right now,” Steele said after the victory. “When you get that extra day, it might not seem like much, but it definitely plays a factor in things.”

With two more off days Monday and Thursday, the Cubs can set up Steele for more bonus rest before his next start and then potentially give him a week. It will be dependent in part on how they want to line up the rotation after Thursday.

“It’s nice to have him in your rotation and he’s going to be the same guy every single day,” manager David Ross said. “I have no worries about that. We monitor everything around here so we’re on top of it. He’s throwing well, he’s going to continue to throw well, he wants the ball.

“We need everybody and Steely’s a big part of this group.”

The rotation will soon be receiving a boost too.

Right-hander Marcus Stroman threw a bullpen Friday in Toronto, his second since going on the 15-day injured list with right hip inflammation. He threw 50 pitches, working in an up-down, and planned to throw another light ’pen Sunday. If everything continues to go well, the Cubs expect Stroman to be activated Wednesday, the first day he is eligible, and start that night against the White Sox at Wrigley Field.

“I’m progressing right where I should be,” Stroman said Saturday in Toronto. “My hips feel way better. I feel like I can activate my glutes and hammies and, yeah, I’m excited to get back out there.”

As he tried to pitch through his hip issue, Stroman had been limited by how much between-start work he could get in, eventually throwing roughly half as many pitches as he typically would in bullpens because of the injury. He became out of whack mechanically and everything compounded as he worked to stay on the mound.

The Cubs are confident that Stroman will look more like the version that earned All-Star honors (2.28 ERA in his first 16 starts) rather than the performance leading up to his IL stint (9.00 ERA in his last seven).

“It becomes very difficult to make certain adjustments when certain things are limiting you because then you start to compensate,” Stroman said. “So it just feels good to be in a place where I can work on what I need to work on and do what I need to do on the mound, honestly, and feel what I need to feel. It’s just a way better feeling overall.”


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