Hayden Wesneski’s start helps Chicago Cubs rebound after worst blowout in nearly 14 years — but Boston Red Sox walk off with win

BOSTON — Shortly after the Chicago Cubs’ worst blowout loss in nearly 14 years, right-hander Hayden Wesneski was summoned to manager Craig Counsell’s office.

Wesneski learned he would be starting the next day in the series finale against the Boston Red Sox in place of left-hander Jordan Wicks, who went on the 15-day injured list with a left forearm strain. Wesneski’s response to Counsell provided an insight into the mentality he took to the mound Sunday night at Fenway Park: “My job is to get the first guy out.”

“It’s not to think about, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get five innings or six innings,'” Counsell said before the game. “It’s just get the first guy out and then move on to the next thing, and I think that’s a good way to treat it. This is an opportunity to get better for growth. It’s a challenge and he’ll take it the right way and whatever happens, learn from it and try to get a little bit better.”

Wesneski, starting three days after throwing 20 pitches in 2 1/3 innings, gave the Cubs everything he had under the circumstances. The Cubs couldn’t get much going offensively until late, opening the eighth inning with back-to-back bloop singles followed by a Mike Tauchman three-run home run to center field to tie the score at 4.

The Red Sox put the first two batters on against Mark Leiter Jr. in the bottom of the ninth. With the infield playing in and runners on the corners, Dansby Swanson nearly kept the game alive with an all-out effort on Tyler O’Neill’s perfectly placed pop-up to left field. Jarren Duran wasn’t tagging up on the play, nearly halfway down the third-base line as Swanson pursued the ball.

But a sliding Swanson couldn’t reel in a difficult catch as the ball hit off his mitt and dropped for a 5-4 walk-off loss. The Cubs (17-11) showed some fight coming off the 17-0 loss Saturday but fell short of securing a series win.

“Obviously not very pleased,” Swanson said of the final sequence. “(A play) I feel like I make really, really consistently and just wasn’t able to make it, you know? I feel like in a way I almost overran it a little bit and caused a little bit of a late glove turn to catch it and wasn’t able to. I don’t think anybody is much more frustrated about it than me just because I don’t think Duran was tagging on that play.

“Today would have been an easy one to kind of just fold in and say we’re going to the Mets, so I think that’s what our group is and what we embody.”

Wesneski’s performance and continued development over the past year carries important big-picture payoff for the Cubs. He retired the first Red Sox batter he faced, Duran, entirely himself, fielding a grounder and sprinting to step on first base. Wesneski went on to limit the Red Sox to two runs (one earned) on 63 pitches in four innings.

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“I didn’t know how many bullets I had. I don’t think (Counsell) knew how many bullets I had,” Wesneski said. “It was one of those things where it was seriously let’s get the first guy out and then we’ll go from there. As the game progressed, just kind of the same thing.”

Through three appearances this year, Wesneski has allowed only one earned run in 10 1/3 innings (0.87 ERA) with one walk and six strikeouts. Throwing strikes has been a big part of his success, posting a 75% strike percentage. Currently in a similar bullpen/spot-start role to last season, Wesneski credits a mix of mechanical improvements to his delivery that has in turn boosted his confidence.

“Confidence comes and goes — it’s really easy to lose it, it’s really hard to get it,” Wesneski said. “For me, the way I gain confidence is through work. If I work hard and I feel like I checked the boxes off today, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be confident.”

Wesneski didn’t let the inherent flukiness that can happen derail him. A Nico Hoerner fielding error in which first baseman Michael Busch’s range had him also converging on the ball led to an unearned run in the first inning. The Red Sox again caught a fortunate bounce with two outs in the third when Connor Wong’s grounder deflected off third base, preventing either a foul ball or Christopher Morel, who was coming in on the ball, from making a play.

Instead of letting those moments spiral, they stood as the lone runs the Red Sox produced against Wesneski. He believed the batter-to-batter mentality paid off. More broadly, it’s clear Wesneski is benefiting from last season’s experience and multirole usage. He is continuing to learn how to navigate big-league lineups and how his stuff can best work for him.

As challenging a first month as the Cubs have endured between a tough schedule and mounting injuries, they expect the opportunities players like Wesneski are getting now to pay off in the long run.

“We’re in a tough spot, especially with a lot of injuries,” Wesneski said. “I think it makes it easy when your manager is preaching, hey, we’re getting 27 outs, it doesn’t matter how we cut it up. So it’s how we’ve adopted it as a team. That’s how we’ve been doing things.”