Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 3/21/12
PEORIA, Ariz. -- This time last year, Seattle Mariners reliever Tom Wilhelmsen was a long shot, a novelty act, not much more than a footnote. But now? He's a bonafide major league pitcher. A seventh-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002 out of Tucson High, Wilhelmsen and his mean fastball seemed destined for the big leagues. But after a pair of positive drug tests for marijuana, he found himself suspended for the 2004 season and ready give up baseball completely. So he walked away, instead spending his days hiking the U.S. and Europe, playing recreational league softball and tending bar near the University of Arizona campus. Eventually, Wilhelmsen decided he was tired of mixing drinks and pouring beers late into the night. He wasn't looking for any favors or the feel-good story that could make a Hollywood screenwriter salivate. "I never wanted it to be like a story," Wilhelmsen said. "I just kind of wanted to do something different, and baseball presented itself, so I went with it." Wilhelmsen launched his comeback in 2009, and it couldn't have been more of a whirlwind. He spent the 2009 season playing independent ball with the Tucson Toros, eventually earning a chance in the Mariners' minor league system. He spent 2010 in the minors, making stops in Arizona rookie ball, low Class A in Everett, Wash., and high Class A in Clinton, Iowa. Then, in a surprise twist, Wilhelmsen made the 25-man roster out of spring camp in 2011, essentially the last man in the bullpen. He finally made his major league debut roughly nine years after being drafted and having never pitched above Single-A. He scuffled in eight appearances early on before being demoted back to the minors. It appeared the comeback story might be over, but there were more chapters to be written. Wilhelmsen made it back to the majors when trades and injuries created a spot on the roster in August. He took advantage of the opportunity, going 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA over 23 innings and holding opposing hitters to a .175 batting average. Now, nearly a year after his big league debut, Wilhelmsen doesn't think much about how he got back to where he is. Now it's all about pitching. He has a job to do, no longer just a feel-good story but a legitimate big league pitcher. "That's the only (mindset) you can have," Wilhelmsen said. "This is your new job. This is what you have to do." The Mariners expect the 6-foot-6 right-hander to be their setup man this season, handing the ball over to Brandon League with games on the line. That's a long way to come considering he had little expectation of making the team when camp opened a year ago. It's a long way, too, from the inexperienced reliever who got demoted in May of last season. So what changed for Wilhelmsen? How did he go from long shot to setup man? Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis believes it was all a matter of confidence. "I think more than anything else it's a mental thing," Willis said. "He has confidence. We saw the stuff, we saw it all spring training last year, but many times someones first experience in the major leagues during the regular season can be, not overwhelming, but it's the realization of a dream." Essentially, Wilhelmsen had to experience failure at the big league level before realizing he had what it takes to stick and just how to use it. "When he went back to the minor leagues last season and then came back he was very aggressive and comfortable in his role," Willis said. "He pitched tremendously, and he's carried it over to this spring. "It's knowing what to expect, knowing how it's going to be day in and day out. He went out and trusted himself more, stayed aggressive, and it paid off." Though the nerves of a first big league camp were gone when Wilhelmsen arrived in Arizona this year, he kept the same mentality of having to win a roster spot. He's done that, but he's also doing a few things to solidify it. This spring, he's spent a good deal of time working on a changeup and said the pitch is "coming around." Wilhelmsen said he has to pinch himself once in a while, considering how far removed from the big leagues he was just a couple years ago. Given all it took to get back, he knows better than to take anything for granted. "You never know how long you're going to have here," Wilhelmsen said. "You've got to make the best of it."
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