Wesneski makes his case to stay as Cubs get healthy

May 3rd, 2023

WASHINGTON -- Incomplete all season, the Cubs’ rotation is trending toward whole again. completed a 45-pitch bullpen without issue Tuesday at Nationals Park, clearing the latest hurdle in his return from a left groin strain. will attempt to build up to 65 pitches in another rehab start at Triple-A Iowa on Wednesday, putting him on track to return from a right shoulder strain by mid-May. Both are on the mend, which means Chicago’s rotation is ever closer to full strength.

All of which colored Tuesday an important start for , who seemed like the logical odd-man out when Hendricks and Taillon return. Or perhaps not. Given how well Wesneski pitched despite Chicago’s 4-1 loss to the Nationals, it may be difficult to take the ball out of his hand.

Wesneski was effective and efficient before the Nationals staged a three-run rally in the seventh against the Cubs’ bullpen, needing only 78 pitches to work six innings of one-run ball. Relying heavily on his sinker and changeup, Wesneski induced a consistent stream of soft contact, didn’t walk a batter and retired 10 of his last 12.

“I think finding his rhythm and his delivery helps him a lot,” manager David Ross said. “That adrenaline that he takes into the game, I definitely see him coming in the dugout before the game with a little bit of that. He's got that mentality where he wants to go get it, so once he settles and calms down, gets into the flow of the game, he's much better.”

The same could be said about Wesneski’s season as a whole. Tuesday was all the more encouraging because it continued to push an uneven start to the year further into the rearview mirror for the 25-year-old righty, who was a revelation for the Cubs in 2022. Wesneski pitched to a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings down the stretch last season, then was superb this spring. But his results were up and down once the regular season began, to the tune of a 5.24 ERA in five April starts.

He’s now rebounded to post a 2.42 ERA (six runs in 22 1/3 innings) and a 13-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his past four starts. Asked if he feels like he’s trending in the right direction, Wesneski was emphatic.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “My work in between starts is getting a lot better. We are starting to figure out what my game plan is. All these starters that are at the top of their game, their weeks are planned out. And we're starting to get to a point now where I'm getting into the rhythm of, ‘Hey, we have to do this every week: this on the first day, this on the second day, third day.’ That kind of locks me in on certain things.”

Said Ross on Tuesday’s outing: “He threw a lot of early count changeups to keep those guys off-balance, stuff going away from those lefties. That was important. He locked his slider in later in the game, backdoor to those lefties. We made some nice defensive plays behind him. He had some hard contact early but looked like he settled in.”

More about that defense for a moment, as the Cubs flashed the leather all night. Dansby Swanson slid to his right and fired a perfect one-hop throw to rob Luis García of a hit in the first, and Tucker Barnhart’s heads-up decision and accurate throw on a safety squeeze attempt cut down CJ Abrams and a potential run at third in the fifth. Later, Nico Hoerner left his feet to make an outstanding play behind Keegan Thompson in the seventh, before Thompson allowed Abrams’ decisive go-ahead single.

“They’ve got a lot of gold on their gloves for a reason,” Wesneski said.