A whole different ballgame

mariners: The feel-good story of the 2011 season, Tom Wilhelmsen still fights for a spot on Seattle’s roster

LARRY LARUE; Staff writerMarch 1, 2012 

PEORIA, Ariz. – Fifteen years of coaching pitchers, it didn’t get any better than late last March for Carl Willis.

“Eric Wedge and I called Tom Wilhelmsen into the manager’s office and told him he’d made the opening day roster,” the Seattle Mariners pitching coach said.

“Thirty minutes later I came out of the office, looked outside and there was Tom, on his cell phone telling everyone he could. That was one of the most enjoyable moments ...”

Wilhelmsen’s story was well-documented in 2011 – a Milwaukee Brewers prospect caught smoking marijuana, who walked away from the game at age 21.

Almost five years later, he decided to try again, and one of the men who remembered him was Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik, who fondly recalled his arm from his days working for the Brewers.

“It was special, and you don’t forget those things,” Zduriencik said.

A bartender in Tucson, Ariz., who had done nothing more competitive than play co-ed softball, Wilhelmsen jumped back into professional baseball, bringing with him a fastball that touched 98 mph.

After a year in the minors, Wilhelmsen came to camp and, inexplicably, made the team. By September, after spending time in Double-A, Wilhelmsen took over as the top set-up man for closer Brandon League.

That roller-coaster ride behind him, Wilhelmsen is in camp and expected to work late in games again in 2012.

If he makes the team.

Who doubts it? Well, occasionally, he does.

“There’s more pressure now than last spring, by far,” he said Wednesday. “I wasn’t expected to do much last spring and my own expectations weren’t that high. Now, my expectations are much greater. Once you get a taste of the big leagues, you’ll never see the minors in the same way.”

The 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander made his first spring appearance in an intra-squad game last weekend and had trouble throwing strikes.

Afterward, he was almost inconsolable.

“One thing hasn’t changed. I’m still going to fight for a job,” he said. “What I have to do is the same thing – throw strikes, get ahead of the hitter.

“My first outing, you saw a lot of overthrowing. What I need to do is face more hitters, get more time on the mound. No matter how much I want everything to be there right now, it’s a process I have to work through.

“I can’t worry about it. What I have to do is focus on throwing strikes, because even if I get hit, seven of 10 balls hit are usually outs. You walk somebody, they’re on base 10 out of 10 times.”

Willis had a quiet talk with Wilhelmsen and, on Wednesday, Wilhelmsen pitched for the second time.

“I didn’t walk anyone, I didn’t fall behind hitters,” he said after a shutout inning. “I’ve got lots of thing to work on, like the slide step, being quicker to the plate with men on base, my two-seam fastball.

“But I focused on the zone today, on hitting the inside part of the plate against lefties. I can’t live in there, but I have to be able to throw that pitch.

“I was happy with the curve, with my command. It was a much better day. I’ve got to show them I can correct it, that I did correct it and that I will correct it.”

Willis, the gray-bearded veteran, shook his head.

“We’re not giving these jobs away, but what Tom did last year gives him a leg up on the competition this spring,” Willis said. “These first two games, really, were just to knock the edge off, get them all ready to face hitters once the games start (Friday).

“We’re watching, yes, but we weren’t evaluating Tom or anyone else. They were all in the acclimation area, now they’re through it. Tom looks fine.”

Willis laughed.

“His arm looks more than fine,” he said.

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

INSIDE | B8

Another setback for Franklin Gutierrez, who will lose 4 weeks to a partially torn pectoral muscle.

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