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Column: Chicago Cubs need to get their rotation back on track after April’s struggles — including back-to-back blowout defeats

MILWAUKEE — After years of failing to develop starting pitching, the Chicago Cubs finished 2021 with three potential starters in Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay.

The prospect of those three joining Kyle Hendricks in the rotation for the next few years was an enticing one for fans eager to see something new at Wrigley Field. And without having to spend a fortune on the rotation, the Cubs theoretically could’ve used the money saved to fill other holes on the roster — and maybe have some left over to sign catcher Willson Contreras to a long-term deal.

But things change quickly in baseball.

Alzolay was shut down in spring training with a lat injury and will miss multiple months. Even when he returns, he likely will start out as a reliever. Thompson returned to his former role in the bullpen and has been too dominant to mess with, at least for now.

That has left Steele, 26, as the last man standing. And with the calendar turning to May, the jury is still out on whether he can stick in the rotation the entire season.

Steele entered Saturday’s start against the Milwaukee Brewers looking to find his mechanics and prove his endurance. He got off to a rocky start in a 9-1 loss, thanks to a pair of Cubs errors and his own fielding miscue in the Brewers three-run first inning.

Outscored 20-2 in the first two games of the series, the Cubs lost for the ninth time in 11 games, falling to 8-13. They struck out 15 times against starter Eric Lauer (2-0) and two relievers. Leadoff man Nick Madrigal, who had only six strikeouts in 55 at-bats coming in, was fanned a career-high three times, as was Michael Hermosillo, whose average dropped to .083.

Steele (1-3) allowed four runs (two earned) on seven hits with one walk over three innings, throwing 74 pitches and striking out four. He threw five scoreless innings against the Brewers on April 9, but failed to last more than three innings in his last three starts, including Saturday.

“The main thing we’ve seen is the inability to repeat his delivery,” manager David Ross said during batting practice. “He just kind of loses it, the strike zone or the feel for the baseball, in an inning. He falls behind hitters and has to work really hard to get back.

“Just finding a consistent rhythm out there as the game goes on seems to be (the issue). He usually starts out pretty well, and then that third or fourth inning, he struggles a little bit finding the zone. His stuff plays in the zone. We know that. But you’ve got to get ahead of hitters, keep them off balance.”

The short spring could be a factor. But Ross said Steele’s lack of experience probably is the biggest reason.

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After a brilliant stint in the bullpen last season — he compiled a 2.03 ERA — Steele stretched out at Triple-A Iowa to return to the Cubs as a starter after the sell-off. He went 2-4 with a 4.95 ERA in nine starts, but finished with seven scoreless innings in his final outing Sept. 30.

Growing pains were expected in 2022, and the Cubs are willing to live with them as long as Steele shows progress. But if the Cubs hope to be competitive, the starters need to pick up the pace. Entering Saturday’s game Cubs starters were a combined 3-10 and ranked 27th in the majors with a 5.54 ERA.

Marcus Stroman (0-3, 6.98 ERA), who starts Sunday in the series finale, hasn’t lived up to expectations, while Hendricks has been up and down since a strong opening-day start against the Brewers. He was beaten up in Friday’s 11-1 loss in Milwaukee, serving up three home runs, and his 5.47 ERA is fourth-worst among starters with 20 or more innings.

“Consistency is what you’re striving for,” Hendricks told reporters after Friday’s loss. “And that starts with pitch to pitch for me. I’m just not having that right now. It’s kind of been one game to the next.”

Before the game Saturday the Cubs optioned starter Mark Leiter Jr. to Triple-A Iowa while calling up lefty reliever Locke St. John, leaving a vacancy in the rotation. The rosters will be pared from 28 to 26 on Monday, after teams were allowed to carry two more players early on because of the short spring training.

With two upcoming off days, the Cubs probably don’t need a fifth starter until May 10, leaving Hendricks, Stroman, Steele and Drew Smyly as the foursome. Wade Miley, rehabbing from left elbow inflammation, is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Sunday. Alec Mills remains in limbo after suffering a right quad strain while rehabbing from a lower back strain.

If the Cubs continue to fall in the National League Central, you wonder how long it will be before Thompson gets another shot at starting.

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