HOUSTON — With the September 1 roster expansion on Sunday, the Seattle Mariners added another arm to the bullpen by calling up reliever and former closer Tom Wilhelmsen from Class AAA Tacoma.
Wilhelmsen pitched in Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Astros, retiring the only batter he faced.
Wilhelmsen was optioned to Tacoma on August 5 after he continued to struggle in late-inning appearances for the Mariners.
There was no secret as to what Wilhelmsen was working on in Tacoma.
“Throwing strikes, just trying to throw strikes,” he said. “It’s been that way the last month but what you are always trying to do.”
So was he able to do that? His stats with Tacoma were unimpressive. He made eight appearances with the Rainiers, pitching 12 innings and earning two saves, while giving up 19 hits and 14 runs (10.50 ERA) with 15 strikeouts.
“If I’m working on throwing strikes and the numbers aren’t good, that means I’m throwing strikes cause they are hitting them,” Wilhelmsen said. “So I was successful in what I was supposed to be doing.”
Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge was aware of the numbers, but believes Wilhelmsen is still pitching better than they would indicate. It’s pretty simple for what Wilhelmsen needs to do.
“The biggest thing is throwing his fastball where he wants to and being able to execute pitches, working ahead and making it a little bit easier for himself,” Wedge said. “We’ve seen him come up here before and do well, even better than what he did in the minor leagues. Hopefully he can flip that switch again.”
Wedge doesn’t have any set plans or roles for Wilhelmsen’s usage.
“I’m going to use him in multiple roles really,” he said. “I’m not going to put him in one role or the other. I’m just going to ease him in and see what happens. The sooner we get Tom in there and find out where he is, the sooner we’ll have a better idea of how we can use him.”
Wedge isn’t going to give up on a pitcher with Wilhelmsen’s power fastball and knee-buckling curveball.
“I do feel strongly that he’s going to be part of this,” Wedge said. “In what role? I don’t know. But he has too big of an arm, he’s had too much experience, he’s had too much success up here in a vital role not to be. I’m hoping all these trials he’s gone through ultimately help him be a more complete bullpen guy because of what he has gone through. He’s seen both sides of it.”
There was some thought that the Mariners might convert Wilhelmsen back to starting. But Wedge isn’t ready to do that.
“I still feel like with his personality that he’s still more of a bullpen guy,” Wedge said. “I think he has the pitches to be a starter if he needs to be. But you’re talking about stretching a guy out, talking about taking years to stretch him out where he can be a viable starter where he can throw 170, 180 not to mention 200 innings. That’s not something that happens over night without putting him in harm’s way.”
Wilhelmsen won’t be the only September call-up. Catcher Mike Zunino flew to Kansas City on Sunday and will be in uniform and in the starting lineup today against the Royals.
Zunino is recovering from a surgery to remove a broken hamate bone in his left wrist. He has played five games with the Rainiers on a rehab assignment. After catching nine innings on Saturday, Wedge was ready to bring him back.
Left-hander James Paxton, who pitched two innings for Tacoma on Sunday, is also joining the Mariners.
“We knew he was only going to throw two — we hadn’t told him that he was going to the big leagues,” Tacoma manager John Stearns said. “He threw two innings, did a nice job, we took him out. … It was fun (to give him the news). Hopefully he can go up there and do what he’s done here in the second half, which has been outstanding. He earned his way to that call-up.”
As for other potential call-ups, Wedge said they will wait until after Tacoma’s season finale today.
Any player called up with the expanded rosters must be on the 40-man roster. Any player that isn’t must be added. The Mariners have one open spot on their 40-man roster.
Left-hander Danny Hultzen pitched two perfect innings for the Rainers on Sunday in his first start since June 27 after coming off the disabled list.
“Hultzen — who we knew was going to pitch two innings — really looked good out there.” Stearns said. “He was throwing strikes; he was sharp.
Hultzen, who was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, was happy to return after enduring back-to-back stints on the disabled list. He was ranked third in the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts and fourth in opponent batting average before going out with a left rotator cuff strain.
Back on the mound at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma on a warm and sunny afternoon, he picked up where he left off, facing and retiring six batters — three by strikeout.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It had been a long time since I had been out there. I had a little bit of the nerves going on, but I was just really happy to be out there again. … You always feel a little bad just watching so many games and being on the bench, so it felt good to go out there and contribute.”