A Chicago Cubs pitching staff that had struggled mightily of late has put the potent Tampa Bay Rays in danger of being swept in a series for the first time this season.
To get the sweep, the Cubs will hope Justin Steele can rebound from his worst start of the season in the finale of the three-game set Wednesday.
Chicago had allowed 35 runs during a four-game losing streak entering this series. Its starters posted an 8.83 ERA during that skid, and a maligned bullpen had an 8.05 ERA over its previous 50 1/3 innings before Monday.
However, Marcus Stroman tossed a one-hitter Monday in a 1-0 victory. Then Kyle Hendricks, in his second 2023 start, and three relievers held Tampa Bay to seven hits during a 2-1 win Tuesday.
"We have a really good group here, a really talented group here that can go toe to toe with anyone," Chicago outfielder Mike Tauchman, who has driven in two of the team's three runs in the set, told Marquee Sports Network. "We've got one more game, and we want to finish things off, and finish strong."
Steele (6-2, 2.77 ERA) went 5-0 with a 1.45 ERA in his first seven starts but is 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in four since. The left-hander allowed season highs for runs (six) and hits (10) over 3 2/3 innings of a 9-0 loss to Cincinnati on Friday.
"Just a little blip on the radar. I'm sure he'll be back to what he has been this year, next time out," Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart said.
While Steele hopes that's the case, he also has yielded eight earned runs and 17 hits over 9 2/3 innings in his last two home starts.
The Rays knocked Steele around in a 6-5 win in Chicago on April 19, 2022. Steele gave up four runs, three hits and three walks over 2 2/3 innings. Wander Franco, 12-for-26 in the last seven games, homered off Steele in that contest.
Tampa Bay still has the majors' best record at 39-18 and a well-documented exciting offense that had averaged 6.1 runs entering this series. However, the Rays -- who have yet to lose three straight this season -- have dropped four in a row and nine of 13 on the road.
"We've just got to move on (and) get them (Wednesday)," said Rays ace Shane McClanahan, who suffered his first loss of the season Tuesday.
Tampa Bay starter Zach Eflin (7-1, 3.17) is 1-1 with a 5.29 ERA in three road starts but will eye a fourth straight winning decision in this finale. The right-hander allowed six hits and two walks, but only a run, while completing seven innings for a third time in 2023 in a 6-3 home win Thursday against Toronto.
Eflin also became the first Tampa Bay pitcher since Mark Hendrickson in 2004 to go at least seven innings without recording a strikeout.
The Cubs, meanwhile, have seen plenty of Eflin but haven't had much success against the 29-year-old. Eflin is 2-1 with a 2.27 ERA in five starts against the Cubs, all while pitching for Philadelphia. That said, Dansby Swanson was 11-for-27 with six doubles and two homers vs. Eflin while playing for Atlanta.
Swanson is 6-for-15 in his last four games. Tauchman is 1-for-2 against Eflin and batting .345 in 11 games since being called up from Triple-A Iowa on May 19.
--Field Level Media