Former prospect rising from obscurity

MARINERS NOTEBOOK: Tall right-hander making most of his opportunity to join Mariners in bullpen

March 25, 2011 

PEORIA, Ariz. - Tom Wilhelmsen packed light when he drove from his Tucson home to spring camp with the Seattle Mariners - his fastball, a breaking pitch, a changeup …

And the hope that baseball hadn’t given up on him.

The story was told here early in camp, how the 6-foot-6 right-hander left the game at 19 to travel the world and make his money tending bar. A year ago, he worked his way up to Class A with the Mariners.

And turned 27.

He wasn’t so much a prospect as a flyer taken by general manager Jack Zduriencik, who remembering seeing a big kid with a big arm when Milwaukee drafted him in 2002.

“You don’t forget an arm like that,” Zduriencik said.

Still in camp with a week to go before the 2011 season begins, Wilhelmsen has thrown eight innings – one in an intrasquad game – and allowed two runs this spring. In his last appearance, against the Chicago White Sox, he struck out the side.

“Yeah, I’m a little surprised I’m still here,” he said Thursday. “I wouldn’t have figured I’d still be here when camp opened, but I’m still pitching. I’m still learning.”

That may be a key ingredient in Wilhelmsen’s rise from obscurity to, well, a possible spot in Seattle’s bullpen.

“My changeup has really improved this spring,” he said. “I’ve learned you’ve got to get ahead of big-league hitters, that you can’t throw a pitch – even a good one – in the same spot twice in a row to a good hitter.

“Throw the sinker down, get ahead, then maybe the fastball up to change the hitter’s eye level.”

With 19 healthy pitchers in camp – six of them non-roster invitees – 12 will likely make the team. Brandon League, Chris Ray and Josh Lueke seem like locks, hard-throwing right-handers available in the later innings.

Jamey Wright looks to be a perfect long man – he hasn’t allowed a run all spring – and left-hander Aaron Laffey was acquired this spring to relieve.

That leaves two spots open. Realistically, the in-house candidates are Denny Bautista, Rule 5 draftee Jose Flores and lefties Royce Ring and Cesar Jimenez.

And Wilhelmsen.

“I’m trying real hard not to look ahead, to just take it a day at a time and do my job the best I can,” Wilhelmsen said. “You can’t be thinking about making a team when you face a hitter. That hitter has to be your focus.

“I’m trying to make pitches, get outs,” Wilhelmsen said. “But I’m happy to be here.”

EVERY RUN COUNTS

When Brandon League, the Mariners’ leading candidate to start the season as closer, gave up a ninth-inning run to Kansas City, it seemed to make little difference – the Royals were leading, 9-4.

Then Seattle rallied for four runs in the bottom of the inning and lost, 9-8.

Manager Eric Wedge said his bullpen remains a work in progress, with at least a couple of open spots, and one of them may be in the ninth inning. Neither League nor Chris Ray, the other reliever with closing experience, has had a great spring.

League allowed three hits in the ninth, following yet another scoreless inning from veteran right-hander Jamey Wright.

SHORT HOPS

When Michael Saunders homered in the ninth inning, it was Seattle’s 21st spring homer run – and they’ve been hit by 16 different players. Jack Cust leads the team with three. … With a day-night, split-squad double-header scheduled today, Wedge has told his players the clubhouse will not open until 8 a.m. Saturday. He wants everyone getting just a bit more sleep. … Miguel Olivo and Cust got at-bats in a minor league game against the Texas AAA team. Olivo is scheduled to catch five innings in a minor league game this afternoon. … Yes, it’s spring training, but Chone Figgins has a nine-game hitting streak and is hitting .359 overall. … Shawn Kelley will start the season on the 60-day disabled list following major elbow surgery last September, but he threw Thursday for 10 minutes at a distance of about 120 feet. Kelley hopes to start soft bullpen sessions in the next few weeks.

ON TAP

Seattle plays two games today, a 1:05 p.m. contest at the Chicago Cubs, then a 7:05 p.m. game with the Dodgers that will be televised on FSN. Probable starting pitchers: Aaron Laffey vs. Randy Wells and John Ely vs. Erik Bedard.

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners

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