MINNEAPOLIS — Chicago Cubs right-hander Hayden Wesneski dropped his head and stared at the dirt mound.
The Minnesota Twins had just clubbed their fourth home run of the game off Wesneski — the last Jorge Polanco’s 409-foot, two-run homer in the fifth — to build a seven-run lead. Each came from the bat of left-handed hitter who swatted Wesneski’s too many mistakes. The Cubs couldn’t overcome the home run barrage in an 11-1 blowout loss at Target Field.
Tucker Barnhart’s RBI single in the seventh prevented the Cubs (19-20) from getting shut out the first time this season.
“Trying to make pitches and sometimes whether that’s mechanical or concentration, what are those factors, we’ll look at and try to get a plan these next four days and get back to work,” manager David Ross said of Wesneski. “We haven’t had many clunkers like that early on (when) we’re out of the game.”
Wesneski struggled to command his stuff around the zone against a Twins lineup stacked with lefties. When he wasn’t throwing balls out of hand, his pitches too often moved into their swing path.
“I probably could have had a better game playing going into it,” Wesneski said. “But I thought about it afterward, I was like I’m seven pitches away from it being a decent outing. So you kind of try to take what you can from it.
“I was filling up zone, but not with the best pitchers. We controlled the ball today, we didn’t command it.”
One lesson Wesneski wants to take from Saturday’s rough outing is better understanding where to miss on pitches. He knows he needs to elevate his misses instead of down in the zone where he can run a pitch into a hitter’s sweet spot, like on Joey Gallo’s two-run blast in the third. Wesneski agreed with the pitch call, a four-seam fastball, and where Barnhart wanted it thrown: pre-pitch the mitt was set up inside at the top of the zone.
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“Obviously I’m a catcher, I’m not a pitcher, it seems like that would be a pretty easy adjustment to make, and he has done that for the majority of the year and today is just one of those days where it didn’t go our way,” Barnhart said. “I thought our game plan was good, just couldn’t get enough outs today.”
Wesneski entered Saturday on a roll in his last three starts, allowing three runs in 17 innings (1.59 ERA) with one walk and 11 strikeouts. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy has seen improvement in Wesneski’s between-start routine, particularly on the mental side, leading to more focused work.
“It’s easy for him to get caught up in some other thoughts, like, this worked but I want to try this or want to do this, and it’s good to continue to want to evolve and get better and grow, but also coming back to what makes you a really, really good pitcher and that version of you and the mental focus,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “The things he’s focusing on as this has gone on has gotten a lot better and his attention to detail’s been really good.”
Kyle Hendricks’ impending return will soon force the Cubs to make a decision with the rotation. Hendricks will make his next rehab start Sunday at Triple-A Iowa. The team has not announced the next step in his rehab assignment.
How deep he pitches into his outing could play a factor in the timing of his return. Ross recently touted the importance of Hendricks adequately building up his pitch count before returning to avoid taxing the bullpen. He cited how Jameson Taillon is also still working into form coming off the injured list. Competing with two starters on pitch-count limits would create a workload challenge. Getting his pitch count around 75-80 pitches Sunday would bode well for Hendricks.
The Cubs don’t need to rush back Hendricks, who still has plenty of time to work within the 30-day window pitchers receive during a rehab assignment. Wesneski hasn’t been able to harness the type of consistency he showed during his September call-up. But some growing pains are expected with just 12 big-league starts to his name. That’s life in the majors.
“There’s nobody that in my opinion for the most part just gets to the big leagues and just goes,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “You have to adjust to what the league is showing you and then the league adjusts to you, that constant battle back and forth. I’m not worried about it at all. He’s been so good of late for us and just had a rough one today. He’ll be back out there in five days, and I’m sure he’ll pitch well.”