Hayden Wesneski scoped out his go-to visual at Wrigley Field hours before his major-league debut.
He has developed a routine for the in-game moments he needs to take a breath and collect himself when, as he put it, things go a little sideways. During his stellar performance Tuesday night, Wesneski looked at his chosen spot — the top of the left-field foul pole — when he wanted to regroup.
“OK, let’s get locked back in and go from there.”
Those situations seemed rare for the 24-year-old right-hander who tossed five shutout innings in relief of left-hander Wade Miley. Wesneski limited the Cincinnati Reds to two hits, struck out eight and walked one to earn the win in the Chicago Cubs’ 9-3 victory.
His performance prompted a smiling Miley — who allowed three runs (two earned) in four innings in his first start off the injured list — to enter the media room for his postgame interview and wonder: “Why do you want to talk to me? Did you see what that kid just did? I was just the opener.”
In honor of Wesnesky’s debut and first win, Miley had a bottle of Ace of Spades champagne waiting in the rookie’s locker stall shortly after the game.
Wesneski became the first major-league reliever since at least 1901 to debut with at least five scoreless innings while allowing two hits or fewer and tallying at least eight strikeouts. He also is the first Cubs reliever with at least five shutout innings and eight strikeouts since Tom Phoebus in 1972.
A vocal group of 15 to 20 of Wesneski’s friends and family members were situated near home plate for the series opener, though his parents weren’t able to make it because his mother is ill. He couldn’t help but notice their energetic vibe while he was on the mound.
“Today was special,” Wesneski said. “I couldn’t have planned it any better. I mean, my friends and family are here. I threw really well. I don’t know what more you can ask for.”
Wesneski on the feeling of recording the final out to secure a win at Wrigley: “I didn’t think Chicago on a Tuesday would get this loud … it fired me up.” pic.twitter.com/fKnfIE3uLB
— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) September 7, 2022
Wesneski admitted he gets nervous every time before he pitches, and Tuesday was no different. He knew he would replace Miley at the start of an inning, so his nerves were quelled until the third, when he began warming up in the bullpen.
“I try to make it as simple as possible,” Wesneski said. “The adrenaline’s going to come on.”
Vesnesky relied on a pitch mix of a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and cutter that kept Reds hitters off balance. He recorded eight whiffs and 12 called strikes during an efficient 61-pitch outing.
“Coming into it we knew the stuff that he has, he’s got a tremendous slider,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “But what impressed me the most was the composition and the pitch ability. He knows exactly what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. His confidence out there was definitely something that stood out.”
Wesneski was buying breakfast at a gas station Monday morning — his options scarce on Labor Day in Jacksonville, Fla. — when he got a call from Triple-A Iowa manager Marty Pevey informing him the Cubs called him up.
“Breakfast went out the window as I was trying to figure out what to do,” Wesneski said. “I teared up a little bit, I mean I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to hide it, but it was really cool.”
After receiving the call, Wesneski almost called Pevey back to double-check he was indeed joining the Cubs.
“I hadn’t gotten many texts from the big-league side, and I told my dad, ‘I think I got called up?'” Wesneski said. “I wasn’t sure, like, I haven’t got any text messages. He goes, ‘Well, I can’t tell anybody that until you figure it out for real.’”
Everything became real for Wesneski when he arrived at Wrigley Field on Tuesday and put on his home pinstripes with his name and No. 19 emblazoned on his back.
Wesneski’s arrival felt inevitable by the end of the season after the Cubs acquired the 24-year-old from the New York Yankees before the trade deadline for reliever Scott Effross. Wesneski’s eligibility to be selected in the Rule 5 draft this offseason if the Cubs did not add him to the 40-man roster, combined with his performance in his last four outings for Iowa (2.37 ERA and .143 average against in 19 innings), led to this opportunity.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Wesneski’s performance at Triple A was what the Cubs expected aside from a rough first start (eight runs in 1⅔ innings).
“Since then he really stabilized and his stuff is real,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “Velocity has ticked up. Obviously his slider’s really good. He’s been really tough on rights. He’s going to go on the 40-man roster this winter and we were talking about the right time to bring them up, so this felt like it.”
Wesneski is viewed as a big-league starter, but his first taste of the majors came out of the bullpen. He became the 15th Cubs player to make his major-league debut this season.
That follows the path the Cubs utilized for Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson last season before they transitioned back into the big-league rotation. Wesneski’s last appearance for Iowa on Aug. 31 was a five-inning relief stint.
The Cubs told Wesneski a few days ago they wanted to use him out of the bullpen to help control his innings.
“They just want to give me options,” Wesneski said. “We’ll see how it goes the rest of the year. I mean, we still have a month to get to work, but for now I’m out of the pen. That’s fine. I’ve done it before and we’ll figure it out.”
Hoyer did not commit to the Cubs wanting to look at Wesneski in a starting role at some point over the final four weeks. He cited the health of the Cubs’ other starters as a factor in that decision.
“Honestly, I could easily see that, but we’ll kind of take it game by game,” Hoyer said. “We’ll start him in the bullpen and you could easily see a scenario where that happens. But we’re not going to force that.”
Whether Miley can stay healthy, something he has struggled to maintain this year, could factor into the Cubs giving Wesneski starts. Tuesday’s start was only the fifth of the season for Miley, who was limited by left elbow inflammation at the beginning of the season and a left shoulder strain that caused him to miss the last three months.
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Right-hander Adbert Alzolay remains a question mark for helping the Cubs in the next four weeks. A right shoulder strain sustained before Alzolay arrived at spring training in March has prevented him from making his Cubs season debut.
The Cubs would like to get him some big-league innings to set him up better for 2023. Alzolay gave up one run in three innings during a Triple-A rehab start Tuesday, his third outing with Iowa. Asked where things stand with Alzolay’s rehab assignment, Hoyer said, “We’ll know a lot more after (Tuesday’s outing), so we can talk about that tomorrow.”
The uncertainty of Steele’s and Thompson’s availability also figures to play a part in the Wesneski decision. Both pitchers are on the 15-day injured list, Steele with a low back strain and Thompson with low back tightness. Steele landed on the IL on Monday after he still didn’t feel right when throwing a bullpen session over the weekend in St. Louis.
The Cubs won’t rush either pitcher to return before the end of the season. Steele already has pitched the most innings (119) in a season during his professional career, while Thompson, at 104⅓ innings, is 25⅔ from surpassing his career high.
Ideally, both would get in more work before the season ends Oct. 5 in Cincinnati, but the Cubs won’t force the situation. The focus remains on making sure they are completely healthy heading into the offseason. Hoyer isn’t worried about Steele’s or Thompson’s back injuries.
“I’d love to have them come back, but we’re not going to force it,” Hoyer said. “I mean, if it feels natural and easy, they can ramp back up and get back to the level they’re pitching at, we’ll do it. But we’re not going to force it if there’s any trepidation at all.
“The concern has to be getting those guys into the offseason healthy and ready to start their offseason conditioning. Both guys have real goals this offseason they want to reach.”