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Wilkie taps opportunity on shoulder

June 18, 2007|by BOB PARASILITI

Opportunity didn't come knocking at Josh Wilkie's door.

He was home. He had the front porch light on. But Mr. Big Chance and Lady Luck decided to go next door.

That's how it felt after the 2006 amateur draft. Wilkie waited for his name to be called. When the draft was over, he was still waiting.

It left him scratching his head.

"I had four consistent years (at George Washington University)," said the Hagerstown Suns reliever. "I wasn't in a league that was considered a baseball powerhouse, but I was seeing other guys around me getting picked. I felt like I could pitch on a higher level. I didn't think I was getting credit I deserved for the way I pitched in college."

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So Wilkie decided to use Plan B: If you don't get an opportunity, make one of your own.

Wilkie's young career is a product of a calculated risk, self confidence and a good audition that brought him to be one of Hagerstown's closing pitchers.

"I took a chance," he said.

Wilkie had some access to the Washington Nationals, since GW is based in D.C. He took advantage of some networking.

"A good friend of mine knew Jose Guillen, who was playing for the Nationals last year," Wilkie said. "We talked and he told me that he could set up a talent showcase with the Nationals.

"I went in there and threw well and had a bullpen (workout) with (Nationals pitching coach) Randy St. Claire and it went well. About a half-hour later, I was standing in (former manager) Frank Robinson's office signing a free-agent contract. It all worked out and they gave me a shot."

Now that Wilkie created the opportunity, it was time to take advantage of it.

He was sent to the Nationals' team in the Gulf Coast League. He got his foot in the door, now it was time to get the rest of himself through the opening.

Wilkie started well in the GCL, but the extended work from college through his first pro experience led to a tired arm. He faltered down the stretch, but did enough to make an impression.

Now Wilkie has shown he has some ability to be a prospect, moving the nondrafted signee to the full-season Single-A level. The missing draft round next to his name makes him remember the things that got him to where he is today.

"Most of the guys who get drafted, (teams) look to get something out of them," Wilkie said. "I have to go and get my name out there. I have to go out and do as much as I can and put up the numbers. I'm not flashy. I don't light up the radar gun. I just have to work on the consistency level."

The jump from college to professional baseball has brought a whole different set of parameters to Wilkie's career. First was the change of pitching to wooden bats - they are a little more forgiving than aluminum ones.

Then there was the change of the pace of the game and the season.

The biggest change was going from starter to reliever.

"I was a starter in college and now I'm throwing every day," Wilkie said. "I don't really have a schedule. Now, I don't have to have my gameface on right away. ... I can wait a while. I'm getting to where I'm starting to know when I might be getting into games."

When Wilkie has gotten in, he has been one of the more effective relievers for the Suns. He is 2-4 with a 4.08 ERA and has four saves in 21 appearances. He has 34 strikeouts in 39 2/3 innings.

The problem has been that the Suns haven't needed a true closer as often as they've wanted. Many times, Hagerstown has been behind and trying to rally.

It's another thing Wilkie has learned to accept. Being patient brings opportunity.

"In the beginning, there weren't many chances," Wilkie said. "Now that we are winning more, I have been able to get in more situations. Here, everyone you face is a college superstar. In college, there were one or two stars to worry about, but here everyone is a four-hole guy."

So all Wilkie can do is take advantage of the chances when they present themselves.

"No one is trying to push me to get better. That's up to me," Wilkie said. "But the coaching here has been incredible. They make you want to work hard. I just have to keep working, keep pitching and then hopefully it will all work itself out."

Opportunity is waiting for a chance to redeem itself.

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