Comeback tale continues for pair of Mariners

Comeback tale continues for pair of Mariners

Comeback tale continues for pair of Mariners
PEORIA, Ariz. -- A year ago they were the long-shot stories of the year for the Mariners and maybe all of baseball. Tom Wilhelmsen, a former bartender, making his Major League debut and earning a role in Seattle's bullpen. And Steve Delabar, working as a substitute teacher in Kentucky in the spring, but finding himself in the big leagues by season's end.

Hollywood could make movies from this kind of stuff. But this is real life for Wilhelmsen and Delabar, and the two are back at work in Mariners camp this week, looking to become known more for their pitching prowess than their unique backgrounds.

Wilhelmsen cracked the Mariners' Opening Day roster last year, sticking with the team despite never having pitched higher than Class A ball and sitting out five seasons after walking away from the game. He now is regarded as one of the Mariners' top late-inning relievers, a hard-throwing 6-foot-6 right-hander who went 2-0 with a 3.31 ERA in 25 appearances last year.

"I think I have the same approach," Wilhelmsen said, pondering what might have changed for him in the past 12 months. "Last year was more exciting, maybe a little more nervous. Those jitters aren't here. It's just do what I can do and hopefully I'll pick up where I left off."

Wilhelmsen, 28, is too much of a common man to take his Major League success for granted. He's a free spirit who still bicycles the 2 1/2 miles from his Spring Training residence to the Mariners complex every morning.

His bike helmet sits atop his locker, which he notes has been moved over among the proven big leaguers on the team rather than last year's mid-clubhouse location where most of the youngsters gradually get weeded out over the course of spring cuts.

"The only thing that's different is being over on this side of the clubhouse," he said. "And hopefully I can stay 'til the last day."

Does it help to have been down this road once already?

"I don't know yet," he said. "I'm not sure. It might. I just know it's great being here again."

The Mariners expect him to stay, with general manager Jack Zduriencik saying over the offseason that Wilhelmsen has the potential to grow into a closer candidate down the road.

After a midseason stint at Double-A Jackson, Wilhelmsen returned and went 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings over his final 17 appearances.

"We feel good about what Wilhelmsen did those last six weeks," said pitching coach Carl Willis.

Delabar, also 28, is less of a sure thing to make the club, but he also established himself as a poised, hard-throwing right-hander as a September callup last year after rising rapidly through three levels of the Minor League system.

Simply being in the mix this spring is just short of miraculous for a guy who was coaching high school kids, working as a substitute teacher and taking classes toward his college degree last spring when a Mariners scout spotted him throwing in the mid-90s during a workout.

Delabar hadn't pitched at all in 2010 while recovering from a broken elbow suffered while competing in Independent League ball in '09. But the former 29th round Draft pick by the Padres apparently was one of those who improved with age -- and a year's recovery -- as he blitzed through the Mariners' Class A, Double-A and Triple-A teams and finished up going 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA in six appearances with Seattle.

The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder returned to Elizabethtown, Ky., over the offseason, suddenly a Major League pitcher instead of a substitute teacher. But the equally down-to-earth Delabar insists nothing really changed even as he readied for his first big league camp.

He continued working with high school players at the Players Dugout facility, combining coaching with his own workouts at the same complex where he had his first tryout for the Mariners a year ago.

"I went around to different schools and was able to give back a little bit, but I didn't do any teaching," he said. "I was tied up in workouts and stuff. It was the same as far as the baseball side, just training and doing baseball stuff all day long at the indoor facility. We just had a good time with it."

But Delabar admits his conditioning improved as he focused on a full-time future back in baseball.

"It helped to have a set goal," he said. "Last offfseason I really didn't get a chance to do a strength program like I would have wanted because I didn't see where I needed to go. I was coaching high school and going to school, so there wasn't an end of the road right there. It was kind of piece things together as I went.

"But this offseason I was able to dedicate to a strict strength program and really get after it, so I feel a lot stronger and certainly in better physical shape than I was last year coming in."

Mariners manager Eric Wedge appreciates what Delabar has been through and is eager to see more of him this spring.

"He's already been out in the real world and that bodes well for him in regard to how handles this game," Wedge said. "He's strong, a big guy, good arm, good direction. He does a good job throwing his fastball where he wants to, but is still working to solidify his secondary stuff with his slider and split.

"He was a great story last year, but now he's coming in here trying to make a ballclub from Day 1. And he looks good."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.