By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
With Wednesday night’s ninth-inning implosion by closer Tom Wilhelmsen at Safeco Field in a 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros, manager Eric Wedge is being forced to rethink how he pitches the ninth inning and with whom.
Right now, Wilhelmsen looks nothing like the closer who started the season with 11 saves in his first 11 save opportunities. He was dominant, steady and consistent. Now he’s anything but, bringing back chilling memories of names like Heathcliff Slocumb, Bobby Ayala and Brandon League.
“Tom Wilhelmsen is still our closer standing here right now, but I mean the game just got over,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “Anything we do will involve a lot of conversation. We’ll make sure we’ll do the right things for the right reasons. And that’s for this club and each individual on this club.”
The Mariners don’t have many options with Stephen Pryor on the disabled list. Carter Capps throws very hard, but has trouble against left-handed hitters and is very young. Lefty Oliver Perez is older and can get both lefties and righties out, but he’s also been a little up and down this season. After that, there aren’t many legitimate options.
It’s been a brutal freefall for Wilhelmsen. Blessed with a 98 mph fastball and a knee-buckling curve ball, he can simply overwhelm hitters. But in this latest slide that started with a blown save in Cleveland where he dropped a ball covering first base for the final out of the game, Wilhelmsen’s command has been shaky at best. In his past 11 appearances, Wilhelmsen has worked just one clean, 1-2-3 inning while walking 10 batters and giving up 11 hits.
“He’s been a little bit better, but it’s still not dominant like you saw him early on,” Wedge said. “He had been making some improvement, making some pitches, but still not the consistency with which you need.”
Wednesday’s appearance highlighted those struggles.
After the Mariners finally broke through and took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning on Nick Franklin’s RBI single, Wedge handed the ball to Wilhelmsen in hopes of securing a series sweep of the Houston Astros.
Wilhelmsen couldn’t close it out.
He gave up back-to-back singles to Jason Castro and J.D. Martinez to start the ninth inning. Carlos Corporan sacrifice-bunted the runners into scoring position. Wedge had Wilhelmsen intentionally walk Carlos Pena to load the bases. But they didn’t stay loaded for long.
Chris Carter hit a line drive to the left-center gap to score two runs and give the Astros the lead.
Wilhelmsen then intentionally walked Matt Dominguez to load the bases again. Wedge finally lifted him in favor of Yoervis Medina, but the rookie couldn’t stop the bleeding, giving up a single to score a run and then later a two-run single to push the lead to 5-1. All five runs were charged Wilhelmsen. Charlie Furbush relieved Medina and walked two batters before finally ending the misery.
It was Wilhelmsen’s fourth blown save of the season.
“(expletive) in a word, for lack of words,” Wilhelmsen said about the outing. “Maybe merry-go-round, would be another word, or maybe three words.”
Anger aside, he knows the struggles can’t linger.
“You have to throw it behind you and plug on,” he said.
The blown save soured a brilliant outing from starter Jeremy Bonderman, who pitched eight shutout innings, giving up just three hits and striking out five while walking two.
Bonderman was at 89 pitches after eight innings.
“It was good today,” Bonderman said. “I just tried to pitch down and keep the pitch count down.”
Could he have pitched the ninth?
“I felt good, but I mean it’s not my call to make,” Bonderman said. “Tom is one of the best in the game so I don’t have a problem with that move at all. Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s going to seal that down. It’s part of the game.”
Why didn’t Wedge stay with Bonderman?
“We can’t do that to him, not with his history,” Wedge said alluding to the offseason Tommy John surgery and all the shoulder issues that forced Bonderman out of baseball in 2010. “He’s 13 or 14 months off of surgery. He hasn’t been that deep in a ball game in years. A 0-0 ball game or a 1-0 ball game you aren’t going to do that to him.”
Instead, Wedge called on his closer, who had saved 16 games this season, and his closer failed.
There is no great mystery to Wilhelmsen’s troubles Wednesday. His fastball simply was up in the strike zone and over the plate. Regardless of how much velocity is on it, players can hit it and hit it hard. And it didn’t help that he couldn’t command his curve ball. Wilhelmsen’s fastball command has been spotty in the past few weeks and it’s a cause for concern.
“He was just up today,” Wedge said. “He left them up and they hit him pretty good. We just have driving the ball downstairs and missing down when he does miss. We’ll work on it.”
Whether that happens as the closer or not isn’t certain.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Wedge said. “Any type of decision you make, you have to make sure it’s the right one to do before you move forward because you aren’t going to back and forth.”