Justin Steele rightfully got most of the attention for the Cubs’ 3-0 victory over the Twins in Minnesota on Wednesday night after his best start.
But the spectacular four innings of relief by Adbert Alzolay in his return from a hamstring injury might have been just as impressive: Alzolay needing just 40 pitches to retire 12 of 13 for his first career save.
More intriguing: Did it hint at a possible plan down the stretch for the Cubs to use that piggyback formula more often for starts — especially with their big three rookies?
“We’ll just read and react as we go,” Cubs manager David Ross said on the subject after the Cubs swept the two-game series for just their fifth series win since mid-June.
“I don’t want to put anything in a box right now.”
Alzolay, who spent the last 18 days on the injured list, already was expected to spend the final month in the bullpen as a way to monitor and limit his innings after making 21 starts this season.
He looked as powerful and sharp as he has since May in his return Wednesday, with more life on both his 96-mph fastball and his slider. He struck out five and allowed just a seventh-inning single.
“He was in control the whole time,” Ross said. “He was under no stress.”
How Ross deploys Alzolay, Steele and rookie Keegan Thompson — who starts Thursday’s series opener against the Pirates — bears as much watching as anything the Cubs do the rest of the season.
That and how those three perform as the Cubs evaluate what they have in-house for their rotation before embarking on the daunting task of rebuilding their pitching staff.
“I just want to enjoy this win — and it was a nice outing for both of those guys,” Ross said, raving about both Steele and Alzolay.
Workloads have been a major focus for teams and pitchers across baseball this season after coming off the 60-game pandemic season of 2020.
Especially young pitchers — and none more than pitchers such as Thompson and Steele, who had no games to pitch last year because of the minor-league shutdown.
Steele threw a personal-high 86 pitches Wednesday, and the the ceiling for him and Thompson in any start the rest of the way might not be that high.
So maybe Alzolay gets paired up with either or both down the stretch in a piggyback role, especially when the matchups look favorable for Alzolay as they did Wednesday with Minnesota’s right-leaning lineup?
For now, Steele and his close pal got to enjoy a “big hug” after a rarity for Alzolay.
“A four-inning save doesn’t happen too often,” Steele said. “That was a lot of fun watching oner of my best friends come in after me and shut the door the way he did.
“It was a really cool moment, something I’ll never forget.”