Padres manager remains mentor to Rangers' Game 2 starter
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- C.J. Wilson doesn't use the Wilson glove given to him by Padres manager Bud Black when he was a mere teenager, though he rode it about as far as he could.
"The thing," Wilson said of that glove, "was like cracked and dilapidated by the time I was done with it."
Yet the tutelage Wilson received from Black at an impressionable age remains with him as he prepares to make the start of his life Thursday night.
Wilson will get the nod for the Rangers in Game 2 of the World Series against the Giants at 6:30 p.m. CT on FOX -- in what might classify as a must-win game, now that the Rangers are in a 1-0 hole -- and his dramatic transition from reliable reliever to standout starter was made possible, in part, by Black's encouragement.
This was long before Wilson was a professional, let alone a big leaguer, and even before Black's official coaching or managerial tenures had begun. The left-handed Black was a 121-game winner in 15 big league seasons, and Wilson, then a teenager, was able to meet him because his cousins went to school with Black's daughters in San Diego.
Wilson's aunt arranged the meeting.
"My aunt was pestering him like, 'Hey, I've got a nephew that can throw and he's a lefty,'" said Wilson, who estimated that he was about 15 when the first meeting took place. "He's like, 'Yeah, right, whatever.'"
But not for long.
"We went out in the driveway and played catch," Black recalled. "After the first couple of throws, I said, 'Oh ... OK, we've got something here.'"
Key stat: Eight postseason walks are second-most of all pitchers
Key stat: Only remaining postseason starter with perfect ERA (0 runs in 13 2/3 innings)
2010: 3 GS, 1-1, 3.93 ERA Career: 3 GS, 1-1, 3.93 ERA
2010: 2 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA Career: 2 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
At AT&T Park
2010: 18 GS, 9-4, 2.60 ERA Career: 92 GS, 34-30, 3.11 ERA
Against this opponent
2010: N/A Career: 1 GS, 0-0, 1.13 ERA
Loves to face: Cody Ross (0-for-3, 1 K) Hates to face: Pat Burrell (2-for-2, 2 2Bs)
Loves to face: Jeff Francoeur (0-for-14)
Hates to face: Ian Kinsler (2-for-4, HR)
Why he'll win: Has dominant, overpowering stuff
Why he'll win: Including regular season, has allowed zero runs in four of his last six starts
Pitcher beware: Is 2-2 with 6.95 ERA in five starts following outings in which he's allowed five or more runs this season
Pitcher beware: Rangers lineup is toughest he's faced since late September
Bottom line: Must bounce back
Bottom line: On a roll
Thus began a mentorship that lasts to this day. The two would connect each winter to play catch and talk about pitching. And Black saw firsthand how Wilson ascended through a standout high school and college career that led to the Rangers taking him with their fifth-round selection in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft.
Black ascended, too. He was the pitching coach for the Angels for seven seasons before taking over the Padres' managerial reins before the 2007 season. But he never lost touch with his protégé.
"He was a nice young man that I wanted to follow," Black said. "He was very inquisitive, and he was interested in a broad range of interests outside of baseball. I think more than anything, he's very curious about life and things outside of baseball. You don't really see the broad range of interest he has [in others]."
Wilson's curiosity, personality and interest in life outside the game have made him one of the postseason's most captivating figures. More than 34,000 people follow his Twitter feed (@str8edgeracer), where his humor shines through. A tweet before Game 1 of the Fall Classic, for instance, read, "Today is the day...that I go eat pancakes."
But while Wilson, who turns 30 on Nov. 18, is good for a laugh, he takes what he does on the mound very seriously. So when the Rangers approached him about possibly vying for a starting spot in Spring Training this year, after making 252 relief appearances for Texas from 2005-09, Wilson had a lot to consider.
Would his arm tolerate the increased innings totals? Would he be able to tone down the intensity needed for short-relief outings but detrimental to a starter's basic framework?
Basically, would this dramatic change work? And would it last?
With these questions rolling around in his head, Wilson turned to Black.
"Because he's known me for so long," Wilson said, "I asked him what does he think. And he asked me what I thought, and he said, 'If you think there's any chance you can do it, you have to try.'"
It's a good thing for the Rangers that Wilson did, because he's been a steady force in their starting five, going 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 33 starts in the regular season and 1-1 with a 3.93 ERA in three starts this postseason.
"I knew it was going to work in Spring Training when he took the job," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We didn't give C.J. that job; he took it in Spring Training. The only drawback I had on C.J. was if he can pound the strike zone enough, and he proved that he could. Other than that, he proved to us in Spring Training that he was in the starting rotation to stay."
Washington opted to stick with Wilson as his Game 2 starter, rather than moving the right-handed Colby Lewis up to Game 2 and pushing Wilson back to Saturday's Game 3 in Texas. That means the Giants will be facing a lefty for the second straight day and looking to do to Wilson what they did to Cliff Lee in Game 1.
"[Wilson] tries to pitch similarly to Lee, but he's more erratic at throwing strikes," Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. "His command is not as pinpoint. Our guys know that. We'll see what he brings to the table."
Wilson, who has never faced any member of the Giants' lineup more than four times, said he sees the benefits of getting to pitch in AT&T Park.
"It's like the exact opposite of Yankee Stadium," said Wilson, who struggled in the Bronx in his last outing in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. "Yankee Stadium is like 310 [feet] down the lines and 340 in the gaps. It's like you sneeze on a ball, break a bat, and it's out. This place, you really have to hit the ball better. It's much more of a pitcher's ballpark."
Wilson still takes a reliever's mentality into some aspects of his starts.
"Minimizing big innings is something that has helped me in my transition," he said. "But I got that from relieving. That's a skill that's like a graduate-level skill. You don't just figure that out. It takes a long time of getting your head kicked in before you get it, before you get good at it."
Over the years, from those early conversations with Black to a mid-career shift in roles, Wilson has gotten plenty good at this. And it's earned him a start on baseball's biggest stage.
"I still feel like this year is incomplete," Wilson said. "We're here to complete the season, and that's the goal we've had the whole way."