Orioles' Tyler Wilson aiming to be at his best when it matters most

SARASOTA, FLA. — At this time last year, Orioles right-hander Tyler Wilson was riding out a strong spring training that won him his first Opening Day roster spot. It was a success by any standard, and at the time, Wilson was confident he had done everything possible to prepare himself for the upcoming season.

But Wilson had never been through the grind of a major league schedule, and though he absorbed every aspect of training to remain strong throughout the season, he hit a wall right before the All-Star break.


"I don't want to do that again," Wilson said. "That feeling in July was definitely difficult. … And it was a great feeling for the first three months of the season. My skill work was great. I felt like this was growing, this was growth in my first extended experience [in the majors]. And then July hit and you just fall off the edge of the table."

Now, Wilson finds himself competing for a roster spot again, but this time around he's attempting to pace himself differently so he can endure the long haul. But as spring training winds down, it puts him in a difficult situation because he knows he's in a tight race for one of the pitching staff's final roster spots. Because he's preparing so that he's there is help the team down the stretch, his spring training numbers haven't matched the ones he put up last year.


With just over a week left in camp, Wilson is in the mix for the rotation void created by right-hander Chris Tillman opening the season on the disabled list. But the fact that he hasn't thrown more than three innings this late in spring might indicate otherwise, because he's not stretched out like the other rotation candidates.

Wilson has to remain confident that even if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster that his method will still be best for the long run. This offseason, instead of going into spring training full throttle, Wilson took an extra month off before throwing.

And because of that, he came into camp feeling further behind than past years.

"The last couple years in spring, I felt really strong and crisp in spring training, and had a feel for my off-speed pitches and spun the ball well and felt like I was kind of almost in midseason form. And that felt great obviously," Wilson said. "… I know I'm competing for spots and there's an advantage to that, but in my career and where we're at as an organization, I really feel like taking an extra month off and really mentally handling the idea of being a little bit farther behind than years past and just trusting that it was going to be better in the long run would be the best decision for me and the team.

"… It's been a challenge mentally to trust that, especially in those outings when I didn't feel good and I didn't spin the ball or didn't feel right. But I really hope that in the long haul it's worth it and allows me to be stronger in August and September. ... I guess the jury is still out on whether it's going to be the right decision or not. But I'm trusting that that was the right thing and I'm not going to second guess it now in the midst of it."

After his first four Grapefruit League outings, Wilson's ERA had ballooned to 8.38, including back-to-back outings in which he allowed four runs against the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays. But over his most recent two outings, Wilson seems to have found his footing, allowing just two hits over his past five innings. In Wednesday night's 7-4 win over the Rays, Wilson quickly retired all six batters he faced over two perfect innings. He earned wins in each of his past two games.

"Tyler's had two or three good outings in a row against some tougher competition," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's a reliable guy. He's a guy who is easy to trust and you know what you're going to get, especially if you keep from using him too much. He's capable of doing some different roles that a good club needs to have done."

What role Wilson is most likely to fit remains unclear. Showalter insists he's a starter, and Wilson has been one of the five candidates to fill in for Tillman. Last season, Wilson made the club as a multiple-inning reliever until joining the rotation in late April. Wilson had quality starts in four of his first seven starts. But he posted a 5.65 ERA in five June starts and then had an ugly outing at the Seattle Mariners on July 2, allowing eight runs in three innings.

The Orioles demoted Wilson to Triple-A Norfolk, citing a need to give him some rest. He went nearly two weeks between starts and eventually was called up the Orioles three more times, but he pitched exclusively in relief in the majors. Five of his last eight outings with the Orioles were scoreless, but his ERA was still an unimpressive 5.54 during that stretch.

"There's so much to be learned in the big leagues and with the guys up here, I just wanted to implement so much of it into my skill work in between outings and I felt I was learning so much," Wilson said. "… It's a balance between the two, learning to trust mentally that I don't have to do it 100 times every day. I'm at a point where I know it's going to be there physically. I can trust that the routine will pay off."

Given Wilson's earlier spring struggles, beating out a group that includes Mike Wright, Chris Lee and Gabriel Ynoa for the open rotation spot will be difficult. The Orioles don't need a fifth starter until April 15, so each of them could conceivably open the season in the minors. Wilson's best chance of making the team to start the season might be as a long reliever, as he did last season.

For Wilson, it's not necessarily about being with the club at the beginning of the season but knowing he can help the team at the end of the season.


"Obviously I want to do everything I can to help the team win," Wilson said. "I want to be there when the war starts. That's the ultimate goal, to be there. But yeah, it kind of is a double-sided sword, trying to figure out what is right and there's real no answer to that. I really feel like not only for me but for the team, being strong in July, August and September is going to be really important. … It's just taking me a little longer to get to this point, and then I had to take some lumps to get to the point where I feel confident about that."

Showalter said Wilson remains a player who is going to "win the tiebreakers" when picking roster spots. Whether that ultimately earns him a spot on the Opening Day roster remains to be seen.

"You trust him. He's dependable," Showalter said. "… You walk into the clubhouse 15 minutes before the game and you say, so-and-so can't pitch and he'll say, 'Let me grab my glove. I'll be there in five minutes.' He doesn't look at any situation thrown at him as an excuse to fail. That's why he's been such a winning player and person for a long time. He's a guy who usually wins the tiebreakers."


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