No sleep? A flight connection? Nothing could stop Wesneski

Righty reliever arrives to park hours before first pitch and delivers four scoreless

April 18th, 2024

PHOENIX -- The stars were out, the streets were quiet and was fast asleep when he heard a knock on his bedroom door. It was his roommate and Triple-A Iowa teammate Matt Mervis, entering to tell Wesneski to check his phone. Wesneski was being called up. It was 1 a.m. in Des Moines.

Fourteen hours later, the 26-year-old Cubs right-hander stood in the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field, sleep-deprived but flush with adrenaline. He’d gotten some shuteye -- at least as much as one can get on a plane -- but he’d also just gotten 12 crucial outs. With Chicago’s bullpen also running on fumes, Wesneski had shut down a talented Diamondbacks offense for four scoreless innings to secure a 5-3, series-clinching win.

“It was probably our best pitching performance of the year,” said Cubs manager Craig Counsell.

It certainly was clutch. After two consecutive extra-inning games, and 10 2/3 innings from the relievers, the Cubs began the day desperate for fresh arms, which is why Wesneski and reliever Colten Brewer were summoned from Triple-A on such short notice. Wesneski arrived at the park roughly two hours before game time, low on rest but with the knowledge that he’d almost assuredly pitch. When Cubs starter Jordan Wicks left with one out in the fifth, Counsell went to Wesneski.

Over the next four innings, the righty stifled a Diamondbacks lineup that had scored 12 runs the night before. Relying primarily on a sweeper and a fastball that topped 97.5 mph, Wesneski allowed only one hit, a one-out double to Randal Grichuk in the sixth, and walked none. He struck out two and allowed only two balls to leave the infield. Counsell rode him all the way to the ninth inning -- a stretch during which the Cubs managed to take a three-run lead -- finally pulling the reliever after Grichuk popped out to start the final frame.

Wesneski walked off to a standing ovation from local Cubs fans.

“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep,” Wesneski said. “I think when I crash, I’m going to crash. But right now, I’m pretty wired.”

It certainly had been a long day. After his wake-up knock from Mervis, he’d tried to grab a few winks, but he was too amped to doze back off. At 4 a.m., he made his way to the ballpark to grab his gear, and then went to the airport for a flight to Phoenix. He and Brewer just barely made their connection, Wesneski said, although he did manage to snooze a bit in the air.

To his teammates, Wesneski’s odyssey made his performance against the defending National League champs all the more admirable.

“Unbelievable. You see him come in and everybody had a lot of confidence in the dugout,” said Wicks, who allowed two runs in 4 1/3 innings. “He’s a guy who works his butt off. To see him go out there and do that was so impressive.”

As the Cubs return home with a series victory, Wesneski’s reward could be a second flight to Chicago in the same day. But a looming roster move clouds that picture. Counsell confirmed after the game that right-hander will be activated from the injured list to start Thursday against the Marlins. The Cubs will need to make room for him.

Rookie righty Ben Brown is not listed among the team’s probable pitchers, though Counsell has said that Brown will not be sent down after a pair of impressive recent outings. Javier Assad, who has thrived as a rotation fill-in, is slated to start against Miami on Saturday. An unfortunate truth about the big leagues may assert itself again: When a roster spot is needed, it’s often the reliever who just ate a ton of innings -- heroic though they may be -- who is the odd man out. After all, he won’t be available to pitch again for days.

If that’s the case, it won’t be unfamiliar to Wesneski, who spent much of last year bouncing between the Majors and Minors. That was also the scenario this spring, when he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. At the time, the Cubs figured it was best to stretch him out at Triple-A, knowing at some point they’d need what he could provide. Wednesday, they did, and Wesneski couldn’t have done more to meet the occasion.

“We got a great performance from somebody we needed a great performance from,” Counsell said. “It’s about players getting a shot and doing something special, and we got that today.”