WAYNE, Neb. — As the SMSU team buses were headed to Wayne, Neb., late Wednesday afternoon, Brandon Wilhelmi took time to reflect on the final chapter of his career pitching with the Mustangs.
Recruited as a catcher, the senior now has the role as the closer, getting a save to preserve a SMSU baseball victory.
This year, he’s 4-0 with four saves. His earned-run-average has dropped steadily to 2.70.
In 26.2 innings, he’s allowed 24 hits and nine runs (eight earned) with eight walks and 22 strikeouts.
He didn’t play much as a freshmen, and then he was converted into a pitcher as a sophomore. He had done both at Springfield High School.
“It pretty much came down to getting on the field,” Wilhelmi said.
The right-hander had a flashback to his sophomore season.
“It was in the (batting) cage during winter ball (in the P.E. Gym),” Wilhelmi said.
That’s when the unforeseen happened.
He took a line drive hit by Derek West off his face.
Amazingly, the only damage was a cut lip under his nose.
“Honestly, I don’t remember much,” Wilhelmi said. “I remember letting go of the ball and getting hit.”
The protective netting that protects the pitcher didn’t stop the ball.
Welcome to college pitching, Brandon Wilhelmi.
Following the injury, the Clements native had to get over the fear of possibly getting hit again.
“I wanted to get back on the mound and not worry about getting hit in the face again,” Wilhelmi said. “I blocked it out of my mind. That was the biggest thing for me.”
He’s gone on to become a reliable relief pitcher for the Mustangs, either in the middle of a game or the late innings.
In fact, Wilhelmi had previous pitching experience at Springfield, helping to lead the team to the Class C state tournament last year.
“I pitched quite a bit,” he said. “I pitched enough to know what I was doing.”
But, that was in high school baseball — not college.
As a sophomore and junior, Wilhelmi’s appearances were as a middle reliever.
This year, his role changed to where he became the closer.
“I guess it was after this fall,” Wilhelmi said. “We talked about it, and basically, I said (to the coaches) that I wanted to pitch as many innings as I can.
“I had a decent fall. That’s when I told them what I wanted to do, whatever gives me more innings.”
Ironically, in the fall intrasquad game, Wilhelmi got the start, permitting four early runs after a play couldn’t be made by the second baseman.
Early this spring, his time was split between pitching in the middle in some games and in late-inning situations in others.
“I don’t prefer one or the other,” Wilhelmi said. “I like getting in the game, being on the mound and in position to help the team.”
His first four mound appearances were nothing to write home about.
In his 2008 debut, he worked one inning against Pittsburg State (Kan.), allowing two hits and three runs (three earned).
He gave up a double. He walked two and struck out one in the Mustangs’ 11-8 loss.
In the second game of the series in Kansas, Wilhelmi faced one batter. He surrendered a double in SMSU’s 10-9 loss.
In his third outing, on the spring trip, he worked 2/3 of an inning, permitting two hits and two runs (two earned).
He walked one and struck out one in a 10-3 loss to East Stroudsburg (Pa).
Two days later, Wilhelmi pitched two innings, permitting two hits and two runs (one earned). He gave up a home run. He walked one and fanned two in the Mustangs’ 13-7 loss to Ashland (Ohio).
Despite that rough start — and a 27.00 earned-run-average — Wilhelmi’s confidence wasn’t shaken.
“I tried way too hard to start this year,” he said. “I put too much pressure on myself. Eventually, I adjusted to where I needed to be.”
In the second game against Ashland, Wilhelmi was the winning pitcher in relief.
He pitched 2.1 innings and gave up just one hit, walking none and striking out four. SMSU won, 6-5.
Two days later, facing Lock Haven (Pa.), Wilhelmi got credit for another win. SMSU won, 9-7, and it appeared he found his niche as a closer.
At the outset, the two different roles didn’t yield good results. Eventually, with a good work ethic, Wilhelmi’s fortunes tunned around.
He was used in the middle of the game, much like he had been the previous season, and he was inserted late in the game.
A middle reliever’s job is to keep the game close. In other words, keep the opposing team from scoring.
A closer’s job is to finish the deal as a relief pitcher.
“The biggest difference between the two is your mindset,” Wilhelmi said. “As a closer, you have one inning to do your stuff, to do what you have to, to win a game.”
That usually means throwing strikes. Coach Paul Blanchard has called Wilhelmi a “strike machine” this spring.
“The biggest thing is, getting right after a batter and not making a hole for myself,” he said.
The Mustangs’ closer has a fastball timed at 85 miles per hour. He’s relied on that pitch plus a slider and change-up.
“Basically, it’s been those two pitches (fastball and slider) that I have to get batters out when I needed to,” Wilhelmi said. “I’ve been able to use both pitches every game.
“I had a slider in high school, but last year was the first time that I was able to command it. I changed the release point. I felt more comfortable. I threw it enough that I could rely on it.”
Today, in the opening round of the NSIC tournament, the No. 4 seeded Mustangs clash with No. 3 Concordia University.
The teams last met on April 14 in the Metrodome.
Wilhelmi blew a save opportunity but was the winning pitcher.
He surrendered a game-tying home run to make it 4-all, but his teammates scored in the bottom of the seventh inning to win, 5-4.
Since that outing, Wilhelmi has been lights-out in the bullpen.
In his last seven appearances, he’s not allowed a run and merely seven hits in 8.2 innings pitched. In that stretch, he’s walked four and struck out four.
His longest stint was 4.1 innings against Northern State, in which he permitted three hits. He had three walks and three strikeouts.
This weekend, Wilhelmi’s career is winding down.
“This is the conference tournament, and it’s a whole different game,” he said.
The Mustangs are making their 12th straight appearance in the postseason tournament.
“We match up with every team,” Wilhelmi said. “Our starters . . . I feel and everybody else feels . . . are as good as the other team’s starters.”
That means, the outcome could hinge on how well the relief pitchers do.
“As long as everybody (pitching) takes care of business, and when I get in, I take care of my business,” Wilhelmi said. “It’s doing the little things to be successful in this tournament. It’s making the right pitches at the right time. Keeping our energy up, that’s a huge factor.”
Simply put, the outcome — of how well the Mustangs fare — is in Brandon Wilhelmi’s hands.