Seattle Mariners

Biggest closer test yet to come for Mariners’ Wilhelmsen 2.0

Seattle Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen had thrown 9 2/3 scoreless innings in eight appearances and eight saves since reclaiming his former role as the team’s closer in late August.
Seattle Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen had thrown 9 2/3 scoreless innings in eight appearances and eight saves since reclaiming his former role as the team’s closer in late August. The Associated Press

The biggest test is yet to come to determine whether this is a new-and-improved Tom Wilhelmsen at the back end of the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen.

Wilhelmsen hasn’t yet had to bounce back from a bad performance. Nope, so far he’s been close to perfect: 9 2/3 scoreless innings in eight appearances and eight saves since reclaiming his former role in late August.

But at 31, Wilhelmsen believes he’s better equipped to handle that adversity, whenever it comes, than he was two years ago.

“I’ve learned quite a bit in the absence that it’s been,” he said. “Learning how to deal with successes and failures. How to bounce back … by watching (Fernando) Rodney and some of the other guys.”

Wilhelmsen’s stuff has never been an issue.

“Listen, Tom is not a neophyte at the job,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He’s done it before. He seems to be a lot more relaxed. His pace is good. His breathing is good. He’s commanding the zone.”

This is no small thing. Fixing the bullpen looms as the Mariners’ top offseason priority. Finding a reliable closer is step one in that process. But what if that guy is already on board?

“He’s done great,” McClendon said. “I think he’s had time to sit back, in his different roles, and reflect. I certainly don’t think he’s overwhelmed by any means in these type of situations.”

The key: He’s done it before — and he’s been successful in doing it.

Wilhelmsen replaced Brandon League as the Mariners’ closer on June 4, 2012, and compiled a 1.76 ERA in 48 games over the remainder of the season while converting 29 of 33 save opportunities.

The following year, Wilhelmsen was 11 for 11 with an 0.50 ERA through 17 appearances before it started to go south at Cleveland when he dropped a ball at first base that would have ended the game.

He was never the same.

Wilhelmsen compiled a 6.75 ERA over his next 30 outings, and by August had surrendered his closing responsibilities to Danny Farquhar. Wilhelmsen later admitted he found it tough to shake a sense he was letting everyone down.

By last season, Wilhelmsen was pitching long relief and doing well; he had a 2.27 ERA in 57 games. But a tough stretch this year while performing in the same role resulted in a brief remedial stretch in the minors.

Wilhelmsen was better once he returned after the All-Star break, but even so, it was desperation that prompted McClendon to reinsert Wilhelmsen as the closer.

Rookie Carson Smith was buckling under the responsibility after replacing Rodney, who never recaptured his All-Star form. Charlie Furbush was hurt, Mark Lowe had been traded to Toronto.

So Wilhelmsen got the call on Aug. 23 to protect a two-run lead against the Chicago White Sox in the ninth inning, and he recorded three quick outs. Two days later, he closed out a one-run victory over Oakland.

He was the closer.

Wilhelmsen points to some changes since he last served in the role.

“I haven’t been throwing the change-up as much lately,” he said, “but I think the slider is becoming a little sharper. I’m starting to have success with it against lefties, and that’s something I was always afraid to throw.”

Mostly, though, Wilhelmsen simply believes he is better prepared, mentally, to handle the job.

“I've been there before,” he said, “and obviously once you get a little taste, that’s something you strive to get back at.”

MEDICAL UPDATES

Outfielders Nelson Cruz and Franklin Gutierrez remained out of the starting lineup Sunday while they continued their recovery from muscle strains.

McClendon said he hoped both would be available for the four-game series against Texas, which begins Monday afternoon at Safeco Field.

Cruz said he expected to be available “(Monday) or the next day. I’m pushing.” He is recovering from a strained right quadriceps muscle suffered Wednesday in Houston while running the bases.

Gutierrez exited Friday’s series opener in Oakland because of a strained right groin muscle, but had recovered sufficiently by Sunday to work out on the stationary bike.

▪ Second baseman Robinson Cano, who served Sunday as the designated hitter, remains slowed by a slight pull in a stomach muscle. He said quick movements aggravate the problem.

ON A ROLL

With much of the attention focused on his switch to center field, Brad Miller’s offensive surge is occurring mostly under the radar.

Miller is batting .322 (29 for 90) over his last 30 games, with a .390 on-base percentage and a .433 slugging percentage.

“I think it’s part of the growing process,” he said. “Sometimes during the year, you’re not going to be 100 percent. But being able to grind out and battle (is important). I thought (Saturday) was a prime example.”

Miller said the key this season came when he sought to eliminate any anxiety over where he plays defensively. Example: On Sunday, he started at second base for just the fifth time this season.

He also went 2 for 4.

“I’ve just embraced going day to day,” Miller said. “It’s obviously out of my control. I want to be in the lineup. I want to play every day and just have good at-bats. I feel like I’m just focused in the moment.”

DEFENSIVE ALIGNMENT

So why did the Mariners, who are on record as wanting to take a long look at Miller in center field, choose to start him on Sunday at second base while putting utilityman Shawn O’Malley in center field?

“I like Brad better in the infield than I like O’Malley,” McClendon explained. “I want to play off their strengths. I think O’Malley is probably better in center than Brad right now.

“And Brad’s better than O’Malley at second.”

Both moves paid off.

Miller, who at 6-feet-2 is 3 inches taller than O’Malley, made a leaping catch for the final out of the Oakland fourth inning.

O’Malley got a great jump and ran down a soft looper for the final out in the seventh inning that would have scored a run.

MINOR DETAILS

Single-A Everett opens the best-of-three North Division playoffs Monday at home against Tri-City (Padres). The series continues Tuesday and, if necessary, Wednesday at Tri-City.

LOOKING BACK

It was 14 years ago Monday — Sept. 7, 2001 — that two Mariners achieved milestones in a 10-1 victory over Baltimore at Safeco Field.

Bret Boone set the American League record for homers by a second baseman when he hit his 34th in the third inning against Jose Mercedes.

Ichiro Suzuki set the major-league record for singles in a season when he got his 168th.

SHORT HOPS

Oakland catcher and Tumwater resident Stephen Vogt left the game in obvious pain during the eighth inning after being hit in the groin by a foul ball off the bat of Ketel Marte. ... The Mariners have three relievers this season with 10 or more saves for the first time in franchise history. Wilhelmsen got his 10th save by closing out Sunday’s victory. Smith has 13 and Rodney had 16 before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for cash. … O’Malley was 1 for 2 with a walk and has reached base safely in 10 of 12 plate appearances since arriving Tuesday from Triple-A Tacoma. … The Mariners are 12-4 this season against the Athletics and hold a 33-21 edge over the past three years. The clubs meet again in the season’s final series from Oct. 2-4 at Safeco Field. … Reliever Tony Zych got his first career hold when he escaped an inherited two-on, one-out jam in the seventh. … The Mariners, at 66-71, are five games from .500 for the first time since they were 32-37 on June 20.

ON TAP

The Mariners open a 10-game homestand at 3:40 p.m. Monday with the first of four games against Texas. Left-hander Roenis Elias (4-7, 4.35 ERA) will face Rangers right-hander Yovani Gallardo (11-9, 3.27). The game can be seen on Root Sports and heard on 710 ESPN.

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners

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