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Growth is key for Cubs’ Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson in September

It’s still early, but seeing growth from Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson during the last month of the season will be valuable for the Cubs entering the offseason.

Cubs catcher Austin Romine, left, talks with starting pitcher Keegan Thompson.
Cubs catcher Austin Romine, left, talks with starting pitcher Keegan Thompson.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — Entering the final four weeks of the season, the Cubs are closely watching the development of young starters Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson as they try to decide what roles each will play in the future.

While Alzolay has been sidelined the last few weeks with a mildly strained left hamstring, Steele and Thompson have gotten their first tastes of pitching in the rotation — and the results have left a lot to be desired.

The two pitchers’ fates won’t be determined solely by their starts in September — a month the Cubs enter on a positive note, having defeated the host Twins 3-1 on Tuesday night in the opener of a two-game series. But having a good idea of what they can do will be valuable in building a 2022 roster.

“There’s probably a lot of factors that are going into this kind of bump in the road,” manager David Ross said. “But [Steele and Thompson] are learning a lot of hard lessons at times. They understand, when you don’t have your best stuff, how important location is and mixing your pitches up and trying to continue to compete.”

Steele had a 6.39 ERA in three starts in August; Thompson had a 9.00 ERA over his first two. Both have deep repertoires, with a mix of breaking balls and off-speed pitches. But the fastball has eluded them both.

They combined to walk 10 batters over 18 ⅔ innings last month.

“I wish my fastball command would have been a little bit better,” Steele said after his last outing, a 3⅔-inning start against the Rockies last Wednesday in which he allowed four runs and five hits. “I made some mistakes over the plate. Just wasn’t commanding it to both sides of the plate. That’s something I need to work on moving forward.”

Steele and Thompson, both 26, were successful starters in the minors and contributed to the bullpen’s success early this season. Now that they’re seeing pitching every five days and facing lineups multiple times in a game, they’re learning how to take that next step.

“I think I’m getting a little quick to the plate and kind of pulling off, and my arm’s dragging behind a little bit,” Thompson said Friday. “So the balls are getting yanked [off the plate] or they’re in the middle of the plate just hanging there to get hit.”

Said Ross: “[They’re learning] how hard it is to be consistent at this level. You get to take the bump right off the bat, and you’re trying to go for five, six or seven innings and being able to navigate that and putting in a lot of work.”

Some growing pains were to be expected, and the Cubs plan to give Steele and Thompson every opportunity to work through their problems. However, wanting to see some growth in the final month isn’t unreasonable. Continuing to show flashes of potential will go a long way.

“I think that’s another sign of some of the starters that are able to stay around for a long time,” Ross said. “I’ve been around guys that when you have your best stuff, you’re able to compete by locating and changing eye levels and changing speeds and stuff like that. I think they’re learning . . . how to handle those moments of adversity on the fly and learn some tough lessons — but good lessons.”