Wes Mleziva has jogged from the bullpen to the mound six times to pitch for UMD this season. With an old-school handlebar mustache that he curls upwards at each end with wax, Mleziva may as well have come into those games straight off of a pringles can.
After an arm injury in 2014 forced him to limit his innings, Mleziva moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Two seasons later, the established closer headlines a strong core of relief pitchers.
According to his teammates, Mleziva has the team’s most established mustache.
“Oh easily, for sure,“ teammate Alex Ferguson said, when asked if Mleziva’s handlebar was the team’s best facial hair.
Ferguson, who is also sporting a mustache, is one of a handful of Bulldogs who have embraced upper-lip sweaters this season.
Mleziva’s unconventional look resembles that of Rollie Finger’s famous facial hair.
Fingers, a Major League Baseball closing pitcher and Hall of Fame inductee who won three World Series titles in the 1970s, was said to have initially grew his famous ‘stache when the Oakland Athletics owner offered a $300 prize.
In contrast, Mleziva’s mustache is all about building his team’s mojo.
“Every game it’s waxed up,” Mleziva said. “As long as the team is doing well it’ll stay. If something happens, then we gotta change it up.”
So far, it’s worked.
The Bulldogs are 5-3 in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play this season and 12-8 overall. As for Mleziva, he’s continued to anchor the bullpen, with three saves and 11 strikeouts in 7.2 innings through UMD’s first 20 games.
“We’ve been able to use him in back-to-back games, (and over) multiple innings,” head coach Bob Rients said. “So it’s really invaluable for our team to have a guy like that.”
His presence on the mound in high pressure, late-inning situations gives those around him confidence.
“You know he’s gonna come in and pound the zone and get outs quick,” Ferguson said. “It’s just a good feeling when he’s on the mound.”
As a result of his starting experience, Mleziva isn’t a conventional closer. He doesn’t try to overpower hitters by putting all of his arm into every pitch. He’s found success by staying true to himself and playing to his intelligence.
“He’s got a high baseball IQ,” Rients said. “From my side of things, the difference that he has compared to other teams’ closers, is that he is capable of setting guys up.”
Mleziva said that as a closer he doesn’t worry about falling behind in the count because he takes his outings on a pitch by pitch basis. He continually mixes up the speed and location of his fastball and breaking ball to get batters out.
“I’m not going to blow it by anybody, and I know that,” Mleziva said. “It’s all about the location.”
This pitching style worked over his career at UMD—he’s averaged just over one strikeout per inning in his collegiate baseball career.
“I don’t let them get comfortable,” Mleziva said. “You always try to keep them guessing.”