SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Tom Wilhelmsen’s journey from Tucson bartender to Major League closer may yet feature the happy ending the once-seemingly inevitable made-for-TV movie would require.
Maybe, Wilhelmsen hopes, last season’s struggles — when he not only lost his job as closer but was sent for a few weeks to Class AAA Tacoma — were just a last little tension-building subplot.
“You never want to hear you are getting sent down,” said the 30-year-old Wilhelmsen, who was out of baseball working in a bar from 2004-08 before re-starting his career and then winning Seattle’s closing job in 2012. “But there is a reason for it all, and I was able to take a step back and analyze a little bit.”
And that analysis, Wilhelmsen said, led to him developing another pitch — a cut fastball to go along with his four-seam fastball and a curve — that he says has been the key to a good start to a spring he hopes leads to yet another career resurrection.
“I was having trouble throwing strikes with my off-speed stuff and that (the cutter) was supposed to be a little bit easier to throw for a strike,” said Wilhelmsen. “So we went ahead and just went at it that way.”
So far, so good as Wilhelmsen has allowed just a .182 average with only one walk and six strikeouts while facing 23 batters in five games.
“He’s throwing as good as anybody in camp,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “You are seeing the big arm, all the pitches. Everything is working great for him.”
Wilhelmsen isn’t yet ready to proclaim himself completely fixed, saying “it’s been five games in spring.” But he adds that when he’s needed the cutter “it’s there. I’ve thrown it for a strike. So I’ll roll with it.”
And with each outing, he also puts the 2013 season a little further in the rearview mirror. He emerged as one of the best closers in the game in 2012, recording 29 saves after taking over the job on June 4.
The 2013 season got off to a nice start when he converted his first 11 save opportunities. But then he suddenly lost command of his pitches, a spate of walks helping lead to four blown saves in one three-week stretch, eventually losing the closer’s job, and then being sent down to fix what had gone wrong.
Wilhelmsen acknowledged the swift fall was a rude awakening, but something he eventually realized comes with the territory.
“I’ve played baseball just about my whole life, so struggling is a part of the game,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a little different when there is a whole city rooting for your or depending on you. But it’s the same game. I’ve struggled many times before. You’ve just got to go back out and do what you know how to do.”
Wilhelmsen said the off-season helped to get him right mentally, as he returned to Tucson to spend time with his family and get away from baseball for a while.
If there was a realization he made then, he said, it’s coming to grips with the fact that perfection is impossible in baseball.
“You just have to know and understand that you are not going to go three up and three down every time,” he said. “You are going to fail in this game, no matter how good you are. And the sooner you can accept that, the better of you are going to be.”
That McClendon is in his first year with the Mariners also helped to give Wilhelmsen something of a clean slate entering this season.
“We all know the stories of last year, the blown saves and all that,” McClendon said. “I told him: ‘Look, we are all human. It happens to everybody. Put it behind you and move forward.’ And he’s done that. I think Willie is very relaxed. He’s gotten back off the mat, so to speak. It’s good to see the look in his eye, the fire in his eye, and the confidence.”
What Wilhelmsen doesn’t figure to get back anytime soon, though, is the closer’s job. That belongs to newly-acquired Fernando Rodney, and McClendon said there is no competition for that spot.
That leaves Wilhelmsen fighting for a role as a set-up guy. The happy ending to the story would feature Wilhelmsen again closing. But for now, he’ll take whatever role they give him.
“It’s different throwing in the ninth inning compared to the sixth,” he said. “But the name of the game is to get outs no matter what inning it is. If you get three outs, you did your job.”
Montero sent down
First baseman Jesus Montero, who showed up to training camp admittedly out of shape, was among three players sent down to Tacoma Friday as the Mariners pared their Major League camp to 40. Montero is hitting .310 with two homers in 12 games, but will have to work his way back into shape, and the good graces of the team, in Tacoma. Montero, once one of the team’s top prospects after being acquired in 2012 for pitcher Michael Pineda, was sent down to Tacoma last May, and then suspended 50 games for violating MLB’s drug program.
Also sent to Tacoma were outfielders Xavier Avery and James Jones. And re-assigned to the team’s minor league camp was shortstop Chris Taylor.
The team said pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma will be examined Tuesday to see if the splint protecting his injured finger tendon is ready to be removed. If so, he could begin throwing again soon after.