The Chicago Cubs are right on the Milwaukee Brewers' tail in the National League Central, and left-hander Justin Steele is a big reason why.
Steele will look to stay at the center of the NL Cy Young conversation on Saturday when host Chicago faces the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third contest of a four-game series.
In his third major league season, Steele (16-3, 2.55 ERA) has emerged as the Cubs' ace, and he hasn't taken a loss since July 16.
Steele is coming off the best outing of his career, as he allowed just two hits across eight shutout innings in a win against the San Francisco Giants on Monday. He issued two walks and fanned a career-high 12.
It was the longest outing of Steele's career, and it came at the right time. Chicago, now 76-66, holds the second National League wild-card spot while also trailing the Brewers (78-62) by just 2 1/2 games in the division.
"It's really exciting to have him on our side," Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said. "I know when guys are at the plate — I haven't seen this many times — they all kind of look at the board to see what pitch it was. It's just a fastball and a slider — not to downplay it. It's a gift."
Gomes thinks Steele is more than deserving of his Cy Young contender status.
"September is usually when the Cy Youngs come out," Gomes said. "When you're having outings like this, the voters like it, man."
But if Steele wants to keep up his winning ways, he will need his offense to come through for him just one day after it was shut out by Zac Gallen.
The Diamondbacks right-hander logged the second complete game of his career, giving up just three hits and one walk while striking out nine in Arizona's 1-0 win over Chicago on Friday. The Diamondbacks have taken the first two games of the series.
Arizona right-hander Merrill Kelly (11-6, 3.22 ERA) will attempt to replicate that performance on Saturday.
In his most recent outing, Kelly allowed just one run on four hits through seven innings to earn a win against the Colorado Rockies on Monday. He walked one and struck out 12.
Kelly is 2-1 with a 4.76 ERA in four career starts against the Cubs. Meanwhile, Steele has pitched to a 0.82 ERA without a decision in two career starts against Arizona.
By posting back-to-back victories over Chicago, the Diamondbacks (74-68) have pulled within two games of the Cubs for the second NL wild-card spot. The Miami Marlins (73-68) are 2 1/2 games behind Arizona in the race for the third and final wild card.
"I got one thing on my mind, and that's to win every game we possibly can and get to the finish line playing our best baseball and get to the big dance and punch a ticket," Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. "That's all I'm thinking about.
"That's all I'm dreaming about and everybody in that (clubhouse) is, too. I know they are. That's a collective thought."
If the Diamondbacks want to keep inching closer toward Chicago, they will have to find a way to slow down Seiya Suzuki, who is riding a nine-game hitting streak. He is 16-for-36 (.444) with three homers and 10 RBIs during that span, and he had two of the Cubs' three hits on Friday.
—Field Level Media