— You couldn’t have cut this tension with a machete.
No wonder Zak Wasilewski was admittedly feeling the butterflies during his initial outing on Friday night with the Bluefield Blue Jays.
Hey, I was even nervous, and all I have ever done is interview the pitching — and hitting — star a few times over the years during his tenure as an all-state performer in Tazewell.
“I felt pretty good, just a little bit nervous, some pre-game jitters, but I felt like my stuff was pretty good,” said Wasilewski, who worked three innings while being tagged with a loss in a 9-5 setback to the Greeneville Astros. “I left a few pitches up, but I feel like for the most part I did pretty well.”
Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg figures Wasilewski learned a few lessons to take into his next outing, possibly on Wednesday in relief of “piggyback” partner Alberto Tirado at Bowen Field against the Burlington Royals.
“Nobody knows how nervous he was except for himself, but I am sure he had some butterflies,” Holmberg said. “You build off that and overcome that and the second outing he will have less of those and hopefully be more confident about his delivery,”
It was almost eerie on Friday night, as Wasilewski made not only his first professional appearance at Bowen Field, but his first-ever outing on a mound he had seen, but never actually thrown from in a game.
“I have never actually pitched here,” said Wasilewski, who played at Bowen Field while with the Tazewell Bulldogs.
While Bowen Field is rarely real loud during Appalachian League games, it certainly was never this quiet..and that lack of noise wasn’t because the public address system didn’t begin working until later in the game. There was no national anthem and no introduction of players — although a staff member did yell out the lineups prior to the game much like they tried to do back in the days of Cy Young and Ty Cobb.
Wasilewski and area baseball fans were greeted at Bowen Field by “Welcome Home Wasi” signs. There was a distinct color of green throughout the grandstands, all signifying support for a favorite son.
“I couldn’t thank everybody enough for coming out supporting us and supporting myself,” Wasilewski said. “I really appreciate it.”
Wasilewski, who was drafted in the 14th round out by Toronto of Tazewell last June, spent last summer in the Gulf Coast League in Dunedin, Fla. He returned to Florida in February, and stayed there until arriving in Bluefield last Sunday on what was his 20th birthday.
He soon learned his first outing in Bluefield would be on Friday.
“For sure,” he said. “I was really excited to come out and pitch today.”
Surprisingly, at least to me, Wasilewski had never pitched at Bowen Field. Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg watched with interest, and knows it will be a scene repeated every fifth day during the summer.
“Wasilewski will be the topic of conversation throughout the summer,” Holmberg said. “Let’s hope that he grows and matures each and every outing.”
From the opening pitch, which was called a ball, outside and low, the sheer focus on Wasilewski was a tension-filled experience, with seemingly every fan on the mound with him, trying to help him do his best.
Friends and family and even media members like me were on the edge of their seats, hanging on every move made by him.
Meanwhile, the Greeneville Astros played the role of the enemy.
“It was just all in the moment and I was a little bit nervous,” Wasilewski said.
Wasilewski followed that ball with two strikes, but a single by Jack Mayfield, and two wild pitches later and the Blue Jays led 1-0. He did work out of a first and third, one out jam, striking out the final batter and slapped the glove of catcher Jorge Saez as he walked off the field to applause from his many fans.
It was more of the same in the second inning. Wasilewski, who was scheduled to work four innings or 60 pitches — whichever came first — had thrown 25 pitches in the opening frame, leaving precious few in his arsenal.
Toronto uses a ‘piggyback’ system in which a pair of pitchers are teamed up in each game. Wasilewski will alternate with Tirado this summer, taking turns either starting or coming out of the bullpen, a system meant to get pitchers used to working every fifth day.
“That is not a bad recipe for success. Hopefully they are all getting more than one or two innings in if they can keep their pitch counts down,” Holmberg said. “I think Wassy threw 25 pitches in one inning and you get into an inning like that and then you have another bad inning, that is two and you are up to 50 pitches and whew, that is why you have to make your pitches count.”
Pitching is more than just throwing the ball. He learned a tough lesson on the first pitch in the second when a ground ball to the right of first base required Matt Dean to field the ball, but Wasilewski was late getting there and the runner was safe.
That was a play that Holmberg recalled after the game.
“That wasn’t a bad outing, but in the (second) inning he was late covering first base and that led to a run and those guys go through that stuff every day in spring training, there is no excuse for being late,” he said.
He loaded the bases by hitting the next batter, followed by a perfect bunt single inside the third base line. He induced Mayfield into a double play ball, and the Jays traded a run for two outs.
Just when it appeared Wasilewski — and his ever-nervous supporters could relax — Mark Wik hit a long fly ball to right field. A green-clad Tazewell fan nearby exclaimed ‘oh no’, but perhaps by sheer will of his fans, the ball banged off the top of the wall and stayed in the park.
Wik wound up with a triple and later scored on a single for the 4-0 lead.
“I left some pitches up and they took advantage of it,” Wasilewski said. “I feel like I can do better than that. I will do better next time.”
After a fly ball to left ended the inning, the Tazewell-clad fans let out another breath, cheering him to the dugout.
Wasilewski’s night got better. He had just 15 pitches to go in the third inning, and needed just eight, retiring the side in order, striking out his final batter of the night.
“I felt a lot more relaxed, just staying within myself and kept the ball down so I did well,” he said.
That was it for Wasilewski. Tirado came out to start the fourth, with Wasilewski’s night over, having allowed four runs on six hits, striking out two and walking two, while throwing 53 pitches.
Bluefield narrowed the deficit to 4-2 in the third and 7-5 in the sixth, but could never get any closer, saddling Wasilewski with the loss.
“All in all, it wasn’t terribly bad,” Holmberg said. “We had chances to get caught back up, we just didn’t get back in the game. We kept falling further and further behind. It wasn’t a bad outing for him.”
Unlike at Tazewell when Wasilewski could still hit — and hit it far — he won’t hit in Bluefield.
It will be five long days before he can pitch again, but he has adjusted to serving strictly as a pitcher.
“It is no big deal,” said Wasilewski, of the five-day wait to pitch again. “You just have to learn from it right now and just keep working on your stuff each day in practice and keep it going.”
Up next is preparing for his next chance to get back on the field.
“He has to throw on the side two days, condition himself and run, think about what he did,” Holmberg said. “He was late covering first base, he was late backing up home, just fundamental things will go a long way.
“He is a young kid and there is a lot of things probably buzzing in his head, but that is all part of the process of maturing as a pitcher. Hopefully he will be OK.”
Wasilewski returned to the field after the game to do media interviews and was quickly surrounded by about 20 kids, all hoping for an autograph and a word from their favorite Blue Jay.
He was happy to oblige.
“It is just a learning process, learning from it, and just doing better the next time I come out,” Wasilewski said. “It was exciting, to come out and get to throw in front of a big crowd.”
It was nerve-whacking too, and that was just for that crowd he speaks of.
Think what it was like for him.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at email@example.com