The Mariners have gone through closers like socks over the past several seasons, from J.J. Putz to David Aardsma to Brandon League — and now Tom Wilhelmsen.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Everyone is enamored by the Tom Wilhelmsen story, except Tom Wilhelmsen. To him, it’s not an unbelievable comeback tale. It’s just his life. Hearing about it over and over isn’t amazing. It’s just redundant.
So excuse Wilhelmsen for being more concerned about his present than his past. His background — from promising Milwaukee Brewers prospect to suspended marijuana user to baseball quitter to bartender to resurrected relief pitcher six years later — is, well, behind him. He can only look forward, to his role as the Mariners’ closer, and attempt to thrive today to eliminate the uncertainty of tomorrow.
For the first time in his career, Wilhelmsen came to spring training last week with a clear big-league role, and it’s a big-time job. He wound up replacing Brandon League as the Mariners’ closer last season, converting 29 of 34 save opportunities and posting a 2.50 earned-run average in 73 appearances. But he still acts and sounds like the earnest pitcher who was thrilled to receive a second chance in 2010.
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“I don’t know if it changes so much,” Wilhelmsen said about how he approaches his new responsibility. “I’ve still got to go out there and show that I deserve to be, first of all, on the ballclub and then, hopefully, tying down that ninth inning.”
With his 95 mph fastball and that big, knee-buckling curveball, the 6-foot-6 Wilhelmsen has done more than show that he belongs on the ballclub. But he’ll keep approaching it like an underdog trying to come back after a six-year hiatus.
It has worked for him, and considering how the Mariners have shuffled through closers in recent years, short-term thinking is appropriate.
Most closers have a short career expectancy, and the Mariners have gone through them like socks over the past five seasons. They’ve had four closers since 2008: J.J. Putz, David Aardsma, Brandon League and now Wilhelmsen. They’ve all had spurts of success, but for various reasons, the Mariners have continued to shuffle. Putz, who saved 91 games from 2006 to 2008, was traded in the first big deal of the Jack Zduriencik era. Then Aardsma came in and saved 69 games and posted a 2.90 earned-run average for two seasons before suffering a hip injury that required surgery. That led to League taking over, and he made the All-Star team in 2011 but struggled last season and was traded.
Now it is Wilhelmsen’s show, and the 29-year-old knows not to get too comfortable. The Mariners have some electric young arms in the bullpen with closer potential, including Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor. If Wilhelmsen struggles, there are plenty of options to replace him. If Wilhelmsen pitches well, but the Mariners aren’t in contention by the trade deadline, he becomes a candidate to be traded because of how stocked the team appears at closer.
Feeling settled isn’t a luxury for Wilhelmsen. But he doesn’t need that to do his job.
“There are a couple of guys that we’ve got in Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor that can hold down the role, I’d say, pretty well,” Wilhelmsen admitted. “I’ve just got to prove that I deserve to stay there.”
While he will stick to his strengths, Wilhelmsen is working to improve his repertoire. He is still fiddling with the circle changeup that he threw sparingly last season, and he wants to develop a more consistent sinker.
But tinkering with those pitches won’t come at the expense of his fastball and curve.
“I’m kind of a believer that, if it’s not broke, then there’s no need to be fixing,” Wilhelmsen said. “But the game changes, batters change, and you change. So you’ve just got to adapt to that. You’re not going to be lights out all the time, and if there’s a pitch you’re going to be able to play with and you have the opportunity to do it, then why not?”
In 98 career appearances with the Mariners, Wilhelmsen has a 2.73 ERA and has struck out 117 batters in 112 innings. But in his mind, he hasn’t done enough yet.
In his mind, there’s so much fine-tuning he can do, and there’s a sense of urgency that comes with it. When you abandon a passion for six years and then return to find it intact, lost time has to be a motivator.
Wilhelmsen understands how fragile success can be. When he returned to baseball, he hoped for this scenario, for a rapid ascent to standout status. Now, he must prove he can sustain success.
“It did happen pretty quickly,” Wilhelmsen says in a fleeting moment of introspection about his journey, “but that’s how I went into it thinking. I wanted it to be two or three years, and if that wasn’t going to work out, I wanted to go another route. It’s kind of what I made my goals to be, and I went out and got ’em.”
And then he shrugged.
Amazing comeback? Not to him. It’s just his life.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer
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