Packing tape: Wilk looks to head north
Left-hander on cusp of winning bullpen job with Tigers
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Adam Wilk was beginning his junior season in high school, a leadoff hitter and starting pitcher, when he caught a rock on the infield dirt on a slide and cut open his right middle finger. Little did he know the makeshift bandage would go on for six years and counting.
"We didn't have a trainer in high school," he explained, "so I had a roll of tape in my bag. I didn't want to get blood all over my glove, so I just taped my finger up."
It wasn't exactly a Band-Aid, but it wasn't a string around his finger, either. He went 3-for-3 at the plate and tossed a complete game, he said, so something went right.
"[I] had a really good game both ways," Wilk continued, "so I just started doing it from then on out, every single game. I've never stopped, even if I'm not playing. If my team has a game, I tape it up that day."
Wilk kept it up through two years of high school, three seasons at Long Beach State, a 2009 debut in pro ball as an 11th-round Draft pick, and a 2010 season as the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year with an 11-5 record and a 2.74 ERA. Wilk kept it going through Spring Training while he was kept around camp as a lefty relief candidate, rising to the cusp of a big league spot.
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Come Friday night at Disney's Wide World of Sports, when he makes his second start of the spring and faces the Braves, that middle finger will be taped under his glove. On Saturday morning, when the Tigers are expected to make their final roster cuts and decide his fate, he'll probably have the tape again. It's a game day for the Tigers on Saturday, whether or not he's a part of the team by game time.
"I get enough gripe for it [from teammates], too," he said.
Considering he has gotten this far, Wilk has a right to a good-luck charm. What was expected to be a learning experience of a first Major League camp for an unconventional left-hander is precariously close to the surprise of the spring.
At least two other pitchers will be hoping for the best, too, as they take the mound. Fellow breakthrough prospect Brayan Villarreal, Minor League veteran Enrique Gonzalez and promising young lefty Daniel Schlereth are scheduled to follow Wilk to the mound Friday.
Schlereth seemingly sits on safe ground to make the Opening Day roster for the first time, based in no small part on the impression he made down the stretch last year. If so, Wilk, Villarreal and Gonzalez would be battling for two open spots in the Tigers' bullpen. One of them is going to be disappointed Saturday. All of them are going to have one last chance to impress Friday.
"Keep working," said Gonzalez, who had multiple stints in Detroit last year. "It's a tough competition for a lot of guys. Keep fighting and throwing."
Manager Jim Leyland said he doesn't go outing to outing making roster decisions. Leyland said Thursday he already has an idea in his mind, but he still has to finalize it and discuss it with others in the organization, including team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski.
That doesn't make Friday any easier for the pitchers involved. Still, they're relatively calm about it.
"I'm not nervous," Gonzalez said. "I'm good right now. Every time I go out to pitch, I focus on pitch by pitch, out by out."
The youngsters appear to be similar.
"I don't think I'd be nervous," Wilk said. "I prepare myself, get some good rest and be ready to go to work at night, because it's a night game again. I try not to put on any extra pressure, because then it makes you tense up and you don't perform as well."
Wilk's a creature of routine -- kind of robotic, as he puts it -- and his approach entering an outing is no different. When he's pitching in relief, Wilk watches games with an eye toward who's coming up and how he wants to pitch to them. He pitches with a game plan.
Combine Wilk's deliberate approach with an aggressive mentality to hitters and a funky delivery, and he has kept hitters nearly the entire spring. His lone major blemish in 12 2/3 innings was an Albert Pujols grand slam last Wednesday after entering with the bases loaded, but it also showed one of his strengths.
"I think he's a guy that I like very much, because he looks like a pitcher to me," said Leyland. "I haven't seen him change his expression the entire spring, in any situation. But that's Spring Training."
Wilk didn't change his approach against Pujols last week, and he got burned by one pitch. But Wilk also impressed in defeat. He knew how he wanted to pitch to one of the game's most dangerous hitters, and it wasn't by pitching around him.
"I came in bases-loaded, two outs, and I threw a 2-2 cutter," Wilk said. "I got him on his front foot a little bit, but it was maybe a little too much plate, and he hit a grand slam on it."
After that shot, Wilk retired the next four batters he faced like nothing had happened. He retired the side the next inning on six pitches, preventing a bad outing from becoming a complete disaster.
Once Wilk was finished, he had no shortage of conversations, from Leyland to pitching coach Rick Knapp to third baseman Brandon Inge.
"They just told me that maybe in that situation, if that situation comes up again, the worst case scenario is obviously giving up a grand slam," Wilk said, "but it may not be too bad if you end up walking him."
He has retired 11 of 12 batters since, resuming his stingy spring that took off with three scoreless innings against the Orioles, whose lone hit off him came from Vladimir Guerrero.
"I think about the situation before I get on the mound, if it's a tough spot," Wilk said. "So when I get on the mound and I'm getting my pitch, I'm not really worried about the situation. I'm just trying to make my pitch. Generally, if I can make my pitch, most times it ends up good for me."
Good or bad, he has the tape. He'll have it again Friday, and Saturday.