When Nick Wittgren was promoted to the New Orleans Zephyrs as a relief pitcher April 14, making the Pacific Coast League All-Star team was the farthest thing from his mind.
Wittgren said he was just trying to show he can pitch at the next level after coming from Double-A Jacksonville.
“I knew all the (Zephyrs’) guys from spring training and stuff, and I’d played with a lot of ’em in Double-A,” said Wittgren, 24, who was drafted in the ninth round in 2012 from Purdue. “I knew they would be behind me, and that helped me adjust.”
It showed, as Wittgren, who quickly became the Zephyrs closer, got a save in his first eight opportunities. That gave him 18 in a row, going back to last season and the start of this season with Jacksonville.
This season, he notched 12 saves in 14 opportunities in being selected with Zephyrs left-handed starter Adam Conley (8-2, 2.33 earned run average, second in the league) to the PCL team. Conley was called up to the Miami Marlins on Saturday and was replaced on the All-Star team by Zephyrs right-hander Andre Rienzo (2-5, 2.88, seventh in the league).
The PCL will take on the International League All-Stars at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Werner Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Nick has been very consistent, at home and on the road,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “He has come up to the Triple-A level and done very well. When he comes into the game, we feel very confident he will protect the lead, which is what a good closer does.”
Wittgren has a 2.88 ERA in 37.2 innings, with 40 strikeouts and six walks. He has converted four of five saves at home and seven of eight on the road.
However, his great start to this season was the opposite of what happened last year with the Suns, when he struggled.
“A little bit of that was fatigue,” he said. “I’d come off a strong season in High A (Jupiter), and I was on a high. Then I went out to the Arizona Fall League and played out there until the middle of November. Then, Feb. 1, I was right back into it in major league spring training.
“I don’t think I gave may arm long to recover, especially after having my first full season in professional baseball.”
With the help of pitching coach John Duffy, Wittgren adjusted his mechanics and concentrated on keeping the ball low in the strike zone. That turned his season around, and he was selected as a Double-A All-Star. However, he didn’t go.
“I got picked because someone else got hurt or called up,” he said. “I felt I didn’t deserve it. I went to Disney World and took my mind off pitching and didn’t throw the ball at all. That helped me the rest of the season.
“I learned you better have a short memory and just keep going.”
That poor start certainly was not the most Wittgren had overcome in baseball. In 2010, he led Park College in Champain, Illinois, to the Junior College World Series, going 10-0 with 54 strikeouts in 60.2 innings.
However, that was his last season as a starting pitcher. He signed with Purdue but had to sit out the entire autumn when it was determined he had cancer of the ulnar nerve in his pitching arm, which required surgery.
“After I pitched in junior college, I returned home (Lafayette, Indiana) to pitch for my (American) Legion team, because I was still young enough and wanted to stay home for the summer,” he said. “Well, I noticed that my fastball was only 84 miles per hour, when it was 88, 89, sometimes in the low 90s my senior year of high school.”
Wittgren didn’t pay much attention to it when his pitching hand would sometimes go numb. After a while, though, he noticed pain.
“There would be shooting pains down my arm,” he said. “My mom decided that we should get it checked.”
At first, Wittgren thought he may need Tommy John surgery, which also involves the ulnar nerve, but tests ruled that out. Even though he’d had cancerous tissue removed, he felt fortunate that his initial fears were unfounded, that he would not have to begin what he felt was a long, uncertain road back. He hasn’t had any problems since with the arm, he said.
The surgery led to Wittgren becoming a closer.
“I had surgery in August and did not throw my first bullpen session until December,” he said. “I had to go to the field and watch my teammates practice. I was not even allowed to run.
“It kind of dawned on me that I might get stuck not having a role on the team, since I hadn’t been practicing at all. An opportunity arose for me to be a closer, and I’ve been doing that since.
“I just love going out there with a lead and feeling that I’m going to get the batters out, because I’m better than them. ‘Here we go, 1-2-3.’”