Justin Steele saved his best for last.
And it couldn’t have come a moment too soon for a Cubs team looking ahead at next year's rotation.
In his final start of the season, Steele threw seven shutout innings Thursday against the Pirates.
“He looked great,” manager David Ross said. “It was a nice note for him to finish on. Really strong outing for him.”
Thursday was not only Steele’s longest start in the big leagues, but his best. He allowed four hits and one walk while striking out seven.
He was efficient, throwing only 76 pitches.
“It was really good to end the season on a night like that,” Steele said, “where I was just really executing all of my pitches when I wanted to.
“If I got to a point where I wasn't executing my pitches, I was able to dial it back in pretty quickly and I think that's why I was more successful.”
Steele made his big-league debut as a reliever in April and impressed (2.03 ERA, 11 appearances) before going on the IL in late May with a hamstring strain.
He returned as a starting pitcher in August for a two-month 2022 rotation audition. He had ups and downs typical of any rookie starter, from a five-inning, one-hit, scoreless start, to a 10-hit, five-run showing, both this month.
That learning curve included plenty of chances for growth.
“Coming up in the bullpen, that kind of showed me that I belonged here, and it gave me confidence going into the starting rotation,” Steele said.
“It’s been a really good year; it’s been really fun. A lot to build off of, a lot to work on in the offseason and that's exactly what I'm going to do.”
Steele will be a key figure on the Cubs’ 2022 pitching staff. He provided valuable multi-inning stints out of the bullpen in April and May as the Cubs struggled to get length from their rotation, helping bridge games to their late-inning relievers.
The rotation will be an offseason priority for the Cubs front office, but Steele will be in the mix for a starting spot next spring. Only Kyle Hendricks is guaranteed to be on the 2022 Opening Day staff.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the guy that comes into spring training and wows all of us next year,” Ross said before Thursday’s game.
Whether in one role or the other, Steele’s focus is on the big picture.
“I want to help this team win ballgames. That's my mentality,” he said. “My eyes are on a World Series. I want to win a championship. If it’s in the bullpen, if it’s in the starting rotation, I'm going to leave that up to the Cubs.
“They're going to use me the best way that they see fit. I'm going to go out there and try to get outs. I'm here to compete.”