By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Zak Wasilewski made his professional debut Friday at Bowen Field, just 13 miles from Lou Peery Field in Tazewell, where he completed his All-State high school career in 2012. The 20-year-old lefty started in front of a big crowd dominated by Bulldog green-clad friends and fans suddenly sporting Blue Jay colors to support the newest professional area athlete. Although “Wassy” did not win the game, he had his moment including finishing two of the three innnings he pitched with strikeouts.
A variety of classmates, coaches, and observers were in the stands to cheer for him and offer their thoughts on his achievement of making it to the Appalachian League mound as a minor league pitcher. All were proud and glad to see Wasilewski, son of Tom and Karen Wasilewski of Tazewell, pitching in front of the “home folks” at the historic park where his famed high school coach, Lou Peery, worked out as a 15-year-old with the Bluefield (Oriole) team that went on to win the ‘62 Appy championship.
“This is a surreal experience,” noted Tazewell High assistant baseball coach Mike Catron. “Zak just needs to let that ball go, do what does naturally, and I think he will be all right.”
Spring sports at THS includes both baseball and softball. A fellow member of the Class of 2011 with Wasilewski, Taylor Dingus, who earned All Southwest District honors on the diamond, was in the stands along with her dad, Bobby, to watch the action.
Dingus noted, “I’m proud of him (Wasilewski) and it’s kind of an honor just to sit here and watch him. It’s exciting. I would be so nervous, knowing all these people from my hometown are here watching. With all the adrenaline in his first start, this will be a ‘most memorable’ moment for him.”
Wasilewski battled through a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the second as the Greenville Astros picked up three runs. His rooters, many of them former players, understood the situation with learning the umpire’s strike zone while facing a lineup filled with professional hitters.
“This feels good, watching Zak out there, knowing he came through at about the same time I did,” said Tyler Myers, a rising senior at THS and a member of the baseball team. “Zak helped me out with some good advice and it’s really cool to see him come back here and play.”
Bri Sparks, a regional honoree this season for the Tazewell Lady Bulldogs who signed to play ball this coming season at Bluefield College, is also a pitcher who has faced some pressure situations.
Sparks said, “I definitely think this is nerve-wracking for him, trying to perform at a very high level in front of a big crowd and everyone wanting you to do well. If I was out there, I know I would be nervous, too.”
On Friday night, Wasilewski was throwing to catcher Jorge Saez. For a couple of seasons at Tazewell, his backstop was Gavan Yates. Friday, Yates and his family were sitting near the plate watching the action.
“As a catcher, I would be trying to get Zak to work the ball down and just relax,” observed Yates. “He (Wasilewski) knows there are a lot of hometown fans here tonight. He has finished up in Florida and now he’s back home and will have to get used to that all over again. Catchers have to keep calm and help pitchers with nerves. That will help a lot as the season goes along. Zak will settle down. His coaches and catchers will help him. It feels great to watch Zak pitch. I just think I should be back out there with him,” laughed Yates.
Another All-State Bulldog pitcher who also played baseball at Virginia Tech, Casey Herald, was sitting with the Wasilewski family behind home plate. Herald worked out some with the Bluefield pitcher in Duneden, Florida, during the winter and is a big fan of the Blue Jay hurler.
“I think Zak did great tonight,” noted Herald. “It is a lot of pressure to come home and play as a pro. After high school, pitchers have to make constant adjustments. Some of the mistakes you got away with in high school get hit at this level. You have to maintain your composure. Batters are taught to learn how you pitch ‘em and once through the lineup they know a lot more about what you are going to do. You have to make a different approach every at-bat. This is a true honor to watch Zak and I feel like he is a brother. I am thankfu to God that he has made it to this level.”
Richard Lindsey, a Tazewell athlete from another era and a local baseball broadcaster for several seasons, concluded, “Zak did better tonight than I expected. He got a little nervous but as excited as we were just sitting here in the stands I can only imagine what was going through his mind out there in front of everybody. He knew the green-and-white was out tonight and he could see the ‘T’ all over. I think Zak did a good job and we are all for him.”
Wasilewski, like the other Blue Jay pitchers, will likely see a four-inning routine under the tutelage of manager Dennis Holmberg and pitching coach Tony Caceras.