SEATTLE – If you marvel at Tom Wilhelmsen’s remarkable journey from bartender to elite closer, you’re not alone. “Every night,” he said, laughing. “Every night. I sit there with my wife – ‘What are we even doing right now?’ ”
What Wilhelmsen is doing is dominating batters in the ninth inning with a devastating three-pitch repertoire. On Wednesday night, for instance, in a non-save situation, he threw a 99 mph fastball, followed by a 90 mph changeup, to completely befuddle an Orioles hitter.
“Yeah, that’s plus stuff right there,” pitching coach Carl Willis said.
And that doesn’t even take into account Wilhelmsen’s money pitch, the knee-buckling curveball that occasionally finds its way onto highlight shows – mainly for the amusement of watching hitters bail for their lives on pitches that suddenly break into the strike zone.
Put it all together, and you have this: eight saves in eight attempts, just one run and four hits allowed in 14 innings, with 11 strikeouts. And not just gimmes, either. Three times in this past homestand, Wilhelmsen successfully navigated the heart of the Angels’ order: Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo.
He was pretty cool about it, too – on the surface.
“Once the Angels left, I called up my father and said, ‘Talk about the meat of the order!’ ” Wilhelmsen said with a laugh. “That’s the way it’s been going. Pretty much every game I’ve been in, it’s been the meat of the order.”
When Wilhelmsen assumed the Mariners’ closer job last June, manager Eric Wedge initially said he was just keeping the position warm until struggling Brandon League got back on track. But League was traded to the Dodgers in July, and Wilhelmsen is now ensconced as the Mariners’ ninth-inning pitcher.
“It’s been a nice process for him,” Wedge said. “He has a much better feel for himself and the role. He has a pretty good idea what he’s trying to do out there. He’s out there pitching the ninth; he’s not out there throwing the ninth.”
It’s a role Wilhelmsen embraces. Willis believes that, while his stuff gives him the tools to close, Wilhelmsen’s personality is what allows him to succeed.
“He thrives in this role,” Willis said. “He has a great temperament and attitude as a closer. He just so enjoys pitching. Like (Wednesday night). It was not a save situation, but regardless of the score, he enjoys the competition.”
Wilhelmsen, who had always been a starter until he reached the majors, admits that he loves being “The Man” at the end of games.
“It feels good to get the last out in a ballgame,” he said. “It feels good to get the call in the ninth. There’s a lot of confidence, obviously, in the coaches in me; hopefully the team as well. That feels good. It makes you feel a big part of it.”
Now 29, Wilhelmsen is reaching his prime after a six-year career interruption while he was out of baseball and tending bar in Tucson, Ariz. That narrative, and his successful comeback, made Wilhelmsen something of a novelty when he reached the majors in 2011. But now, he’s a successful major leaguer who might be on an All-Star path, though the attention bestowed upon him for his circuitous career path has only slightly waned.
“I guess it works in my advantage if people aren’t looking at my numbers, and they’re just thinking about the story,” he said. “But it’s part of my life, and I’m proud of it.”
The key to his early dominance this year, agree Willis and Wilhelmsen, has been the development of his changeup to use as an additional weapon, particularly against left-handed hitters.
And having improved in each of his three major league seasons, Wilhelmsen’s confidence continues to grow.
“That’s the name of the game, really,” he said. “The ability is there for everybody. It’s upstairs that puts you over the edge.”
Wilhelmsen adds, “I had the confidence from the get-go. That’s why I got back into it. I saw folks pitching and I was, like, ‘Man, I could do that.’ That was enough to get me out the door and onto a tryout. But just the more batters you face, the more time you have, you get more comfortable and confident.”
But that still doesn’t stop Wilhelmsen and his wife, Cassie, from marveling on a nightly basis over what he’s accomplished.