Justin Steele and Adbert Alzolay are Cubs pitchers heading in opposite directions

CHICAGO — So much went wrong during Craig Counsell’s first month managing the Chicago Cubs. It started on Opening Day when All-Star pitcher Justin Steele buckled with a strained left hamstring, and the injured list just kept growing. Yet this team still has not lost more than two games in a row, playing at a rate that projects to 90-plus wins over an entire 162-game season.

“You couldn’t ask for much better,” Steele said before the start of a weekend rivalry series against the Milwaukee Brewers, Counsell’s old team. “It’s just a testament to the depth we have around here and how he’s managing it.”

That’s not how it sounded during Friday afternoon’s 3-1 loss at Wrigley Field. The boos rained down as Counsell took the ball from Adbert Alzolay and the struggling reliever walked off the mound. Tasked with trying to protect a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning, Alzolay gave up three runs on four hits, continuing the spiral that already cost him his job as the closer.

There’s not a lot of room for error when the Cubs are playing without two elite hitters (Seiya Suzuki and Cody Bellinger), the second and third pitchers in their Opening Day rotation (Kyle Hendricks and Jordan Wicks), and integral pieces of the bullpen (Julian Merryweather and Drew Smyly). Every team deals with injuries all the time, but that is a lot of talent and experience on the sidelines during a challenging part of the schedule (16 games in 16 days).

“We need Adbert,” Counsell said after Alzolay’s fifth blown save. “We need Adbert to be an effective member of the bullpen. We need to keep giving him opportunities to do that.

“The situation we’re in with just who we have available today, you can’t just stay away from people.”

The upside is that the Cubs should eventually have waves of reinforcements. Steele is now on track to be activated for Monday’s start against the San Diego Padres. Other players have been getting repetitions and gaining confidence. That next-man-up mentality is part of how the Counsell-led Brewers consistently outperformed expectations.

But there are limits to every organization’s depth chart. Certain players are more replaceable than others. It took nearly a decade to fully develop Steele, who went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA in 30 starts last season, finishing fifth in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.

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Justin Steele allowed three earned runs and struck out four over 3 1/3 innings for Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday. (Lily Smith/ The Des Moines Register / USA Today Network)

The Cubs are optimistic that the rust will be minimal because Steele continued his throwing program throughout the recovery process for this hamstring injury. He’s already done a rehab outing with Triple-A Iowa, declaring himself “100 percent ready to roll.”

The Cubs, meanwhile, still have three starters with a sub-2.00 ERA in Shota Imanaga (0.78), Jameson Taillon (1.50) and Javier Assad (1.97), which is a good reflection of their international scouting and targeted approach to free agents.

Hayden Wesneski is also showing why the Cubs acquired him from the New York Yankees and projected as a solid major-league starting pitcher. Before Alzolay’s meltdown, Wesneski threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the Brewers, lowering his ERA to 0.54 as a swingman and getting an ovation from the matinee crowd of 33,557.

And then there’s Ben Brown, the 6-foot-6 right-hander who has so much poise and stuff that it makes you wonder if he could eventually be the answer to the team’s closer question.

“If we can get to the point where we’re very healthy, we’re going to have some tougher decisions to make,” Counsell said. “Right now, we’re still trying to put together the innings puzzle on a day-to-day basis. Trying to say Ben’s this or Ben’s that, I don’t think that makes sense. I don’t think that’s logical for us to do right now. What we know is that Ben’s getting hitters out. There’s a spot for Ben. And we need Ben to pitch big-league innings. He has earned that because he’s getting hitters out. That’s going to continue.”

Counsell has the credibility and the authority to make these decisions without worrying about being second-guessed. Alzolay and Steele are homegrown pitchers who became good friends long before they became established at Wrigley Field. But the boos and the negativity represent the other side of that energy the Cubs feel.

“You’re out there, you’re competing,” Alzolay said. “If you let that get to you, then you got a much bigger problem.”

(Top photo of Adbert Alzolay: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images)

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