It’s been lingering for about two weeks.
The Seattle Mariners didn’t try to deny or ignore it, they hoped it would fix itself. But it hasn’t.
With Wednesday night’s ninth-inning implosion by closer Tom Wilhelmsen at Safeco Field in a 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros, manager Eric Wedge is forced to rethink how he pitches the ninth inning and with whom.
Right now, Wilhelmsen looks nothing like the closer who started the season with 11 saves in his first 11 opportunities. He was dominant and consistent. Now he’s anything but, bringing back chilling memories of Heathcliff Slocumb, Bobby Ayala and Brandon League.
“Tom Wilhelmsen is still our closer standing here right now, but I mean, the game just got over,” Wedge said. “Anything we do will involve a lot of conversation. We’ll make sure we’ll do the right things for the right reasons. And that’s for this club and each individual on this club.”
The Mariners don’t have many options with Stephen Pryor on the disabled list. Carter Capps throws hard, but has trouble against left-handed hitters and is young (22). Left-hander Oliver Perez is a veteran and can get both lefties and righties out, but he’s also been up and down this season. After that, there aren’t many options.
It’s been a brutal freefall for Wilhelmsen. Blessed with a 98 mph fastball and a knee-buckling curveball, he can overwhelm hitters. But in this latest slide that started May 20 with a blown save in Cleveland where he dropped a ball covering first base for the final out of the game, Wilhelmsen’s command has been shaky. In his last 11 appearances, Wilhelmsen has worked one 1-2-3 inning while walking 10 batters and giving up 11 hits.
“He’s been a little bit better, but it’s still not dominant like you saw him early on,” Wedge said. “He had been making some improvement, making some pitches, but still not the consistency with which you need.”
Wednesday’s appearance highlighted those struggles.
After finally breaking through and taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning on Nick Franklin’s RBI single, Wedge handed the ball to Wilhelmsen in hopes of securing a series sweep of the Astros.
But he couldn’t close it out.
He gave up back-to-back singles to Jason Castro and J.D. Martinez to start the ninth inning. Carlos Corporan bunted the runners into scoring position. Wedge had Wilhelmsen intentionally walk Carlos Pena to load the bases but they didn’t stay loaded for long.
Chris Carter hit a screaming line drive to the left-center gap for a double to score two runs and give the Astros the lead.
Wilhelmsen then intentionally walked Matt Dominguez to load the bases again.
Wedge lifted him in favor of Yoervis Medina, but the rookie couldn’t stop the bleeding, giving up a RBI single then a two-run single to push the lead to 5-1. All five runs were charged Wilhelmsen. Charlie Furbush relieved Medina and walked two batters – the second scoring Houston’s sixth run – before ending the misery.
It was Wilhelmsen’s fourth blown save of the season.
“(Expletive), in a word, for lack of words,” Wilhelmsen said about the outing. “Maybe merry-go-round, would be another word, or maybe three words.”
Anger aside, he knows the struggles can’t continue.
“You have to throw it behind you and plug on,” he said.
The blown save soured a brilliant outing from starter Jeremy Bonderman, who pitched eight shutout innings, giving up three hits and striking out five while walking two.
Bonderman was at 89 pitches after eight innings.
“It was good today,” Bonderman said. “I just tried to pitch down and keep the pitch count down.”
Could he have pitched the ninth?
“I felt good, but, I mean, it’s not my call to make,” Bonderman said. “Tom is one of the best in the game so I don’t have problem with that move at all. Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s going to seal that down. It’s part of the game.”
Why didn’t Wedge stay with Bonderman?
“We can’t do that to him, not with his history,” Wedge said, alluding to the Tommy John surgery in 2012 and all the shoulder issues that forced Bonderman out of baseball in 2010. “He’s 13 or 14 months off of surgery. He hasn’t been that deep in a ballgame in years. A 0-0 ballgame or a 1-0 ballgame, you aren’t going to do that to him.”
Instead, Wedge called on his closer, who had saved 16 games this season. And his closer failed.
There is no great conspiracy to Wilhelmsen’s troubles Wednesday. His fastball was up in the strike zone and over the plate. Regardless of how much velocity is on it, players can hit it, and hit it hard. And it didn’t help that he didn’t have command of his curveball. Wilhelmsen’s fastball command has been spotty in the past few weeks and it’s a cause for concern.
“He was just up today,” Wedge said. “He left them up and they hit him pretty good. We (want to have him) driving the ball downstairs and missing down when he does miss. We’ll work on it.”
Whether that happens as the closer isn’t certain.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Wedge said. “Any type of decision you make, you have to make sure it’s the right one to do before you move forward because you aren’t going to (go) back and forth.”