Wilhelmsen lives up to increased expectations

Wilhelmsen lives up to increased expectations

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As the pieces come together in the Mariners' bullpen this spring, two things seem crystal clear. Brandon League will be the closer and Tom Wilhelmsen figures to slot in as the hard-throwing right-handed setup man.

But Wilhelmsen, last year's out-of-the-blue success story, isn't counting on anything. To his thinking, nothing is certain. Nothing is guaranteed. In fact, he feels more pressure this spring just to make the club, largely because a year ago he blissfully sailed through camp without much anticipation of landing a Major League job.

When you've never pitched above Class A ball and have spent five years tending bar instead of working on your changeup, it would be a bit presumptuous to expect to grab a spot on the 25-man roster, after all.

Back then, Wilhelmsen's story was something out of Hollywood. This year, it's more real. And for the tall 28-year-old, that means a different challenge.

"I feel like I'm trying to make the team a lot more than I was last year," Wilhelmsen said. "I didn't have much expectation of it last year. I just went with the flow. Where now, I feel like I'm trying to be more of the flow."

That is Wilhelmsen in a nutshell. He speaks slowly, pondering his words, making you wonder at times if he's going to finish a sentence or just trail off into thin air. Then, he'll drop a finishing thought that makes perfect sense, if you've stuck with him.

"Every time you walk into a clubhouse, it's exciting," Wilhelmsen said. "But I guess I'm a little more excited this year, just because my expectations are higher for myself. And I feel like we have a stronger team. A lot of us were rookies last year, so we're more experienced and a lot of us are settling in and feeling more a part of the club."

It's not easy judging relief pitchers in spring, with so few innings of work to go by. Wilhelmsen has pitched in four games so far, allowing five hits and two earned runs with four strikeouts in five innings. More importantly to him, he's yet to issue a free pass.

"The main goals for me are to stay healthy and not walk anybody," said Wilhelmsen, whose fifth scheduled appearance of the spring was wiped out Sunday by rain.

The easy-going Arizona native is also working to bring along a changeup that would give him a third pitch to go along with the mid-90s heater and tough slider already in his arsenal.

Wilhelmsen has thrown a circle change forever, but never quite needed or perfected it. Or even liked it quite enough to throw it much in competition. He was good enough with that approach to post a 2-0 record with a 3.31 ERA in 25 appearances last year, with a 2.35 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings after being recalled from Double-A Jackson for the final two months.

But he knows there is more to learn, which is why he approached Felix Hernandez last year and asked for advice on how to cure his struggling changeup.

"He just said, 'I don't know, dude. I just throw it,'" Wilhelmsen said with a smile.

But leave it to the free-thinking Wilhelmsen to find wisdom in those shrugged shoulders and sparse words.

"I figured, 'Alright, I'll just throw it,'" he said. "So that's what I'm doing with it now. I'll just keep throwing it and throwing it and throwing it."

He's encouraged by the changeup's results this spring.

"It's nice to see something finally work when you've been working on it forever and it's been terrible in the past," he said. "That's encouraging."

Wilhelmsen is a big believer in positive reinforcement. He tells himself over and over each day that his arm feels good, he feels good. He believes it helps. But on the hill, it's a different story. There are no positive mantras, just a simple approach.

"On the mound, I don't think about much," Wilhelmsen said. "I just kind of grip it and rip it."

A year ago, Wilhelmsen's locker was on the side of the clubhouse where longshots reside each early spring, then are gradually weeded out as the cutdowns come. He survived that process, made the club and this year finds himself in the middle of the veteran group of hurlers.

But he remembers where he came from, and watched with interest when youngsters like Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton set up shop in his former neighborhood.

"It was exciting to see them all come in for the first time, just remembering your own first time," Wilhelmsen said. "You'd be like, 'This is my locker? Holy cow.' So it's fun. They'll remember their first spring."

A year ago, the Mariners were looking at Wilhelmsen as a potential starter down the road, but wound up discovering what his power arm can do for their relief crew. And he's fine with that.

"It makes it easier because I know I'm going to be in the bullpen, so I don't have that question in my head," he said. "Starter, reliever, right now it's still the same thing. As long as I'm up there and have an opportunity to show something or do something, that's all I can control. Whether it's one inning or four, it's another outing out there."

But while Wilhelmsen keeps telling himself he hasn't won any role yet, Eric Wedge knows better. The skipper has seen enough this spring to know the 6-foot-6 slinger will be his setup man when the season opens next week in Tokyo.

"I've been really pleased with him," said Wedge. "It's a different set of circumstances this spring than last, a different set of expectations. I think he's up to it with his stuff and demeanor, and his presence on the mound. We see him pitching late in the ballgame, ahead of Leaguer."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.