In a season when you’re twenty games below .500 with two-and-a-half weeks to play, sometimes you take the wins that don’t show up in the standings.
Though the Cubs lost 3-1 to the Rockies on Saturday, Hayden Wesneski showcased the potential that might put him in the rotation discussion for 2023. In his first start in the major leagues, Wesneski went seven innings and allowed just one run. He struck out seven, walked none, and gave up three hits. In a stretch that lasted from the first to the sixth innings, Wesneski retired 16 straight Rockies batters.
All told, in Wesneski’s first three appearances for the Cubs since his debut on September 7, he has a 2.30 ERA, 18 strikeouts, 9 hits, and 2 walks in 15.2 innings pitched. Against Colorado, he showed off his swing-and-miss slider and his ability to stay in the zone.
“I think that’s just the best chance you have of staying here longest, is just filling [the strike zone],” Wesneski said. “That’s just part of my M.O. and who I’ve been. They’re going to keep running me out there if I keep throwing strikes.”
Wesneski induced 12 swings and misses – good for a 28 percent whiff rate – in his start; five of those came via the slider. Wesneski said he felt like he was able to hit his spots with all of his pitches, especially that slider, better than he had in previous outings.
“That slider’s got just real sweep and depth to it,” manager David Ross said. “What I liked about it [was] he had confidence to repeat it, he had confidence to move it off the plate, throw it for a strike and then walking some guys off, changing some eye level.”
Wesneski said when he got to the ballpark Saturday morning, he wasn’t convinced his start was going to go well. Why? A bad night’s sleep brought on by worries over whether or not some of his struggles from his previous outing would carry over. Wesneski gave up three runs on two homers against the Giants on Sunday.
But once he got to work on getting ready, Wesneski was able to get locked in. He said his prep work with catcher P.J. Higgins, pregame stretches and breathing exercises all went well.
“I kind of just fought through it,” Wesneski said, “and eventually got to the point where I got to where I needed to be.”
Rockies outfielder Yonathan Daza roped a double in the second at-bat of the game. Perhaps a product of those early nerves for Wesneski. But from there, Wesneski sat down the aforementioned sixteen straight Rockies hitters. He said during that stretch he was so hyperfocused on his plan for the next batter that he lost track of what inning it was.
“The thing I just kept in mind the whole time was, ‘We need to win the first pitch,’ and that’s all I had in my mind,” he said.
Ross said it is not certain at this point whether Wesneski will get another start this season. Keegan Thompson made another rehab start for Triple-A Iowa on Friday, striking out four in 2 1/3 innings. Thompson, shelved by back issues, hasn’t pitched since Aug. 19. Wesneski’s status will also depend on how quickly Justin Steele is able to return, Ross said. Steele has been on the injured list since Sept. 2.
These are questions for the short term, but the Cubs face similar questions about their rotation after this season. Wesneski said he has not thought about what his performance these last few weeks of the year might mean for next spring.
“I’m just trying to stay here day by day, to be honest with you,” he said.
And for now, Wesneski is not concerned with whether or not he is a starter.
“I just want to be given the opportunity,” he said.
Ross was impressed with how well Wesneski managed the tempo of the game, and one of his early observations is that Wesneski can read batters’ swings well and adjust as he goes.
“I think in his outings he’s really slowed down the opposing offense with his secondary stuff,” Ross said. “He’s got enough in the tank with his fastball to blow it by guys, but he uses it really smart, which is kind of mature for his experience.”
Saturday was Higgins’ first look from behind the plate at Wesneski, acquired from the Yankees for Scott Effross on Aug. 1. He, too, was impressed by the pitcher’s mature approach, also noting that Wesneski wanted to talk so much about the game plan in the dugout between innings that Higgins would have to remind him that he needed to get his batting gloves on and be ready to hit.
“A lot of times they just want to be told what to do,” Higgins said. “So with him having a game plan and knowing what he wanted to do, [it] makes it more confident with how he wants to pitch — and it makes my job easier, too.”
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