Tom Wilhelmsen has been horrid in his past few trips to the mound, and his last blown save ravaged the fragile confidence of a bipolar Mariners team. What could have been another momentum-building victory Saturday quickly turned into a crushing defeat, as Wilhelmsen walked the bases loaded before allowing a walk-off triple to Ryan Doumit.
It’s understandable then that Eric Wedge would be suspicious of Wilhelmsen’s ability to finish a ballgame just two days later against a dangerous White Sox squad. But Wedge stuck with his closer, and that may just have been his strongest managerial move of the season.
Plain and simple, there’s no other healthy player on the Mariners’ roster more capable of shouldering the closer role than Wilhelmsen. He’s been the guy, and he must continue to be the guy for the team to succeed. Even when his command falters, his high 90s fastball and nasty hammer curve miss bats and get outs. He’s even developed a changeup to throw hitters off even more.
When his fastball location is off however, Wilhelmsen doesn’t have much chance. Without his fastball, he cannot set up his curveball. Moreover, he probably won’t command his curveball if he doesn’t command a much easier to locate pitch. With the fastball off, Wilhelmsen is screwed. That’s what he showed in San Diego Wednesday and Minnesota Saturday.
However, when Tom does have his fastball on, good things happen. Here’s the pitch summary of Wilhelmsen v. Konerko with nobody out and a runner at first in the ninth:
As you can see, Wilhelmsen got the first pitch over for a strike at 96 mph. That’s huge for him, because now Konerko has to respect his heater. Konerko fights off the second pitch, which speeds up to 97 and Wilhelmsen quickly has a ton of room to work against a great veteran hitter. That’s where the good old hammer comes in handy, not only for the 20 mph velocity drop, but the sinking action that absolutely freezes hitters. Konerko gave one of those “oh I really should have held up” half swings and went down whimpering. The nasty factor had the pitch at 93 out of 100. Dayum!
Part two of our analysis takes us to the very next at-bat, where Tom faced Dayan Viciedo. They call Viciedo “Tank,” because he swings hard and hits the ball a long way. And boy, was he aggressive. That’s perfect for Tom, since he benefits from hitters swinging more often than not. Viciedo jumped on the first pitch and fouled it off before waving at another fastball for strike two. Tommy went back to his fastball for strike three instead of the hammer, probably to mix things up and try and catch “Tank” off guard. It worked perfectly, as his 97 mph heater gassed Viciedo, who cut at it but never had a prayer of making contact.
No one on the Mariners is right now capable of this kind of clutch success like Wilhelmsen is. Even though he walked the leadoff man again and allowed another run, he did his job in securing the save. Wedge gets full marks in my book for trusting Wilhelmsen’s top stuff and having Carter Capps and Oliver Perez ready just in case. The Bartender is the man when it’s closing time in Seattle, and he’ll stay that way with performances like Monday’s.