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Justin Steele earns first opening day start


MESA, Ariz. — Justin Steele couldn’t help but reminisce about his journey to the majors.

His thoughtful mood was inspired by a meeting with Craig Counsell at the Chicago Cubs manager’s office on Friday afternoon, where Steele was reportedly informed he would start the game on March 28, the first day of his career, on the road against the Texas Rangers.

Up to this point, the 28-year-old left-winger had not focused on whether he could get the ball in the opening possession. But as this became his reality, Steele looked back on his path leading to this moment. Counsell told him to be proud of what he accomplished heading into his fourth major league season. Steele called it a great conversation and “something I will never forget.”

“It’s a reflection of what a player has done throughout his career and where he’s gotten himself,” Counsell said. “Justin has reached a great place, and that’s something you earn.”

Steele spent seven years in the minors, including Tommy John surgery in 2017, before receiving his first major league call-up in early April 2021.

“It’s not always going to be pretty, it’s not always going to be what you think it is, but sometimes you just have to keep your head down and get through the tough times,” Steele said. “The light is always brighter than the tunnel.”

Kyle Hendricks knows how Steele will feel on opening day ahead of taking the mound in Arlington. The veteran right-hander has started three consecutive opening day starts, most recently in 2022.

“Obviously there’s no one in this group who deserves this more or is close to it, and I’m very happy for him,” Hendricks said Saturday. “It was quite surprising to see his path. The emergence, the competitiveness and the fire, you’ve always seen it there, but transitioning, being a consistent starter and getting the ball every fifth day now – we know exactly what we’re going to get from him. “This is a huge luxury in the game today.”

Steele’s journey from fifth-round pick in 2014 to opening day starter after a performance that put him in the Cy Young Award conversation for much of the season shows how careers are rarely linear. He can be an example to young players in the organization of perseverance and resilience in the face of difficult injuries.

“Those are the things that I had that made me the pitcher that I am, the person that I had the right things to follow, the person that knew how to be a pro, the person that got the job done,” Hendricks said. “He did everything, man, he did everything the right way. “It’s getting better every day and it’s still fun to watch.”

Cubs starting pitcher Justin Steele pitches against the Giants at Wrigley Field on September 4, 2023. (Eileen T. Meslar/Chicago Tribune)

Hendricks called it a unique day, saying the start of opening day brings a playoff-like atmosphere that comes from fans’ anticipation of returning after a long absence. The important thing is to stick to the routine, even in the midst of pre-game turmoil and emotions.

“He’s going through hell right now, we’re not worried at all,” Hendricks said. “That’s why he’s the man for the job.”

Steele’s big-league success is a developmental win for the Cubs, and they’ll need to produce more this season and in years to come to achieve sustained success. Inner growth can be the difference between winning and losing. X factors like Steele must emerge.

Hendricks knows it’s easy to say now, but he could see Steele having elite traits in his rookie 2021 season. His fiery competitiveness, especially his way out of the arena, was undeniable.

“There was no fear, you could just tell the look in his eyes,” Hendricks said. “He wanted the ball in his hands, he wanted to be on the mound. And sometimes that’s the hardest part.”


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