Why Cubs could skip Justin Steele’s next start even though he feels fine after exiting with tight back

The Cubs’ day off Thursday gives them flexibility to move around rotation pieces.

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Chicago Cubs’ Justin Steele leaves the game during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday.

Chicago Cubs’ Justin Steele leaves the game during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday.

AP Photos

MILWAUKEE — The way the Cubs reacted to left-hander Justin Steele’s back tightness — and their plan for him — is part of an approach to get him and right-hander Keegan Thompson through what is shaping up to be the longest season of their professional careers. 

“[Steele] feels fine,” manager David Ross said before the Cubs’ 7-0 loss to the Brewers on Saturday. “I think it really was just some lower-back tightness, whatever that was from. We’ll get through Toronto; we’ve got a day off after Toronto. We’ll probably reassess the rotation, just try to line things up where everyone gets the proper amount of rest. But he’s fine.”

That day off Thursday will be the Cubs’ first break after a stretch of 20 games in 19 days. The Cubs likely will use it to skip Steele’s next start. 

The need to monitor the workloads of Steele and Thompson late this season long has been on the team’s radar. 

Steele has thrown 199 innings, about 20 more than he’s pitched in any pro season. Thompson, at 104⅓ innings, is approaching his 2018 high mark of 129⅔.

Two weeks ago, before either pitcher’s back tightened up — Thompson landed on the 15-day injured list last weekend — pitching coach Tommy Hottovy spoke with the Sun-Times about the merits of weighing a range of information rather than setting a specific pitch limit.  

“As an organization, I think we do a fantastic job of communicating between departments,” Hottovy said. “Talking to the training staff, talking to the strength staff, talking to the [research and development] team about what they’re seeing data-wise, and we’re just taking all of it in and trying to make our best decisions based off all the information. Also taking into consideration what the player feels, how he feels, how he feels like he’s recovering.”

So when Steele felt his back tighten up on his last warmup pitch before the sixth inning Friday, the Cubs took a cautious approach. 

Steele has been dominant the last couple of months with a 1.46 ERA since the beginning of July. And he tried to keep pitching in the sixth. Steele threw five pitches to Hunter Renfroe, inducing a long flyout to open the inning.

“I adjusted the way I was throwing a little bit, just to throw strikes,” Steele said after the game. “But the coaches and [trainers] could tell something was going on.”

Ross and assistant trainer Nick Frangella came out to check on Steele.

“Obviously, we didn’t want to push that,” Ross said after the game.

Steele’s pitch count already was up to 88.

Steele and Thompson likely won’t be shut down before the season ends. There’s value in having two developing pitchers, who could be integral members of the Cubs’ rotation for years to come, experience finishing a season.

That also doesn’t mean they’ll be throwing six innings every start down the stretch. 

Thompson threw a bullpen session Saturday. His timeline to return from the injured list is still unclear, but Hottovy said they plan to have him making starts by the end of the season.

“It’s more about how we can maximize what we want to do with him the rest of the year but also, on the front end, make sure he gets the recovery that we feel like he needs,” Hottovy said. “And we’re going to be able to read a lot of that in the bullpens that he’s going to be throwing.”

Hottovy described Thompson’s bullpen session as “a good step in the right direction.” Thompson’s pitches looked sharp, but his execution wasn’t quite up to his normal standard, which Hottovy took as a sign of persisting fatigue.

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