Tom Wilhelmsen narrative for Mariners takes irresistible closing twist
With great pitches and a new role as closer, Mariners reliever is showing he has the right stuff.
Seattle Times staff reporter
San Diego @ M's, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
The Tom Wilhelmsen story line has taken a distinct and surprising change of direction — kind of like one of those sweeping curveballs he throws that buckles opponents' knees.
For a long while, Wilhelmsen's personal narrative reigned supreme — the irresistible tale of a once-heralded Brewers prospect who tested positive for marijuana, quit the game for six years, tended bar in Tucson, Ariz., traveled the world, and then, at age 26, mounted an improbable comeback at the lowest levels of the Mariners' organization.
It wasn't a career; it was a full-length movie script, one that culminated with Wilhelmsen making the Mariners' opening-day roster in 2011, having made the jump from Class A Clinton.
"The story, it's really not incredible to me, per se, because it's my life," he said.
The perpetually genial Wilhelmsen, when pressed, will admit that he gets just a bit tired of reliving the details of his comeback. But then, he's quick to add, "It's fun. It keeps me grounded. I'm just a normal Joe."
But now, three years into his return, fully established in the Mariners' bullpen, the Wilhelmsen narrative is no longer the amazing comeback and overcoming his past; it's what lies ahead.
With a mid-90s fastball and that curve, Wilhelmsen has emerged as a future closing candidate. And at least for the moment, the future is now. With Brandon League demoted from the job until he regains his form, Wilhelmsen has emerged as the Mariners' de facto closer.
While manager Eric Wedge has very carefully avoided designating any one pitcher for that role, his actions have made it clear that Wilhelmsen is his first choice. In the past three save situations, Wilhelmsen has gotten the call, and he has converted all three, allowing just one hit over 3-2/3 innings.
Most conspicuous, of course, was Wilhelmsen's work Friday night, when he navigated the ninth inning of a six-man no-hitter, getting the Dodgers in order to preserve a tense, historic 1-0 victory.
It was a career highlight ("Without a doubt, it's No. 1," he said), but Wilhelmsen was so intent on getting through the inning that he had to be jolted back to remembering the significance of the final out. That occurred when catcher Jesus Montero leapt into his arms and tried to engage the confused pitcher in a celebratory dance.
"He told me like four times — 'Let's go, it's a no-hitter, man.' I was, like, 'Oh yeah, you're right.' "
Here's the analogy Wilhelmsen came up with to explain his temporary amnesia on the brewing no-no: "I clearly knew it was a no-hitter. You're in the bullpen watching the game; it's not like you don't know. I guess the best way I could describe it, it was the item on the shopping list you left at the grocery store. You're going through everything — 'Oh, my God, I forgot this. That's the key ingredient to what I'm supposed to make tonight, and I forgot it.' "
Wedge remains steadfast in expressing his intention to eventually return League to the closer's role. And he still stops short of officially naming Wilhelmsen his interim closer.
"That's the way it's worked out so far, but it's been sporadic a little bit," he said before Sunday's game. "If the workload were different, then it would have been a little different. If we had three left-handers coming up and I'd finished (Lucas) Luetge or (Charlie) Furbush in the eighth inning, I'd send them back out for the ninth inning if I felt they were strong enough to do that."
But Wilhelmsen is undeniably developing closer's stuff. The curve — taught to him early in his career by former major-leaguer Brent Strom — is a devastating counterpoint to his high-octane fastball. The video of Chicago's Alexei Ramirez bailing out on a curve that appeared targeted for his head before angling in for a strike has been widely replayed on the Internet — to Wilhelmsen's enjoyment.
"That's great," he said. "For a minute there that guy had no clue what was coming. He thought it was going to get him, and it falls for a strike. There's nothing better than that."
With League sure to be prominent in trade rumors as the July 31 deadline approaches, Wilhelmsen is a potential replacement, along with, at some point, flame-throwing youngsters Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps.
Asked if he sees Wilhelmsen as closer material, Wedge said, "Yeah, I do. I think we have a couple guys down there that could potentially do that. That's good. You want to have options. Ultimately, when we get to the point we're real good, you can't run that guy out there four nights in a row in tight ballgames."
Now that Wilhelmsen has gotten a taste of closing in the majors, however, he's not eager to give it up — no reflection, he's quick to say, on League.
"We all have complete confidence in him," he said. "He's one of the filthiest closers in the game. We'll be looking forward to having him back there."
"I enjoy it very much. I think most folks in the bullpen want that opportunity, and I'm happy to have it. ... I'd like to stay where I'm at."
It's an intriguing new twist to the Wilhelmsen story.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry