ANAHEIM, CALIF. — If Tom Wilhelmsen is going to win back his job as the Seattle Mariners’ closer, one of the first things he needs to do is find command of his curveball.
While fans ooh and ah over Wilhelmsen’s 96-100 mph fastball, he needs his knee-buckling breaking pitch to complement it. It’s what made him so good early.
But in his recent troubles, Wilhelmsen lost the feel for his curve. He couldn’t throw for strikes, let alone retire hitters with it.
The numbers show his struggles and lost confidence in the pitch. According to FanGraphs.com, Wilhelmsen has thrown his curveball 22.3 percent of the time this season, down from the 28.5 percent last year. And his strike percentage when he throws it is down from 42.9 percent to 31.3 percent.
In his last save opportunity against Houston, Wilhelmsen lamented he couldn’t throw it for a strike. The same thing happened in an earlier blown save against Minnesota.
With no curveball, Wilhelmsen becomes a one-pitch pitcher. And no matter how hard he throws, big league hitters will catch up to it if he’s throwing the same thing over and over. They learn and adjust quickly.
In Tuesday night’s win over the Angels, Wihelmsen couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead, giving up a solo home run to Albert Pujols.
But there were a few positives in his five outs of work. The first was that he didn’t fall apart after giving up the home run. He also was able to spot his curve for strikes, which helped him achieve the first positive. Of the eight curveballs he threw, four went for strikes.
“I felt pretty good,” he said. “It was probably the best curve I’ve thrown all year.”
Wilhelmsen has worked hard before games trying to regain his curve.
“I’m just throwing the heck out of it, trying to throw all the (expletive) ones out of me,” he joked. “If I throw it enough, maybe the (bad ones) will leave and end up anywhere else but on the field.”
PRYOR NOT CLOSE
With Wilhelmsen’s struggles, the return of Stephen Pryor could benefit manager Eric Wedge and his bullpen. But Wedge isn’t expecting to see Pryor pitching a high-pressure inning for the Mariners in the near future. Pryor has yet to do anything more than throw off flat ground after suffering a setback in his recovery from a torn muscle in his lower back.
“He’s doing good,” Wedge said. “When we get back, if he continues to improve, we’ll get him back on the mound.”
The torn latissimus dorsi that Pryor suffered isn’t something that’s quick healing for a pitcher.
“It’s been a tough injury for him,” Wedge said. “I can’t tell you the reason why it’s so slow. But I just know with that particular injury and with how big and strong he is, it’s been a tough one.”
Wedge was asked if Pryor would be back before the All-Star break?
“I’m not going to say that,” he said. “But I would say that it’s probably far-fetched to get (him) back here by then.”
Pryor has been on the disabled list since April 15.
With Michael Morse unable to play outfield and Kendrys Morales unable to play first base, Wedge is going to have to rotate things to get their bats in the lineup along with Justin Smoak.
“We can only get two of those three guys in there,” Wedge said.
On Wednesday, Wedge had Smoak on the bench, after he homered in his first at-bat after coming off the disabled list Tuesday. The decision was made easier because left-hander C.J. Wilson was starting for the Angels and Smoak is 6-for-48 (.125) vs. left-handed pitchers this season.
“We felt like against a tough lefty (Wednesday), it was best to get Morales and Morse in there,” Wedge said.
Normally, Jason Bay starts in the outfield with a left-hander on the mound. However, he’s still bothered by a tight hamstring that he tweaked against the A’s on Sunday.
The Mariners wrap up the four-game series at Angel Stadium with a game at 7:05 Thursday. Seattle right-hander Felix Hernandez (8-4, 2.32 ERA) is scheduled to start against Angels right-hander Tommy Hanson (4-2, 3.94). Root Sports and 710-AM will broadcast.