Wilson wants weight of world on his shoulders
Calm, cool left-hander hoping for second run in postseason
ARLINGTON -- C.J. Wilson loves September, and it's showing in his work. This is his time of the year."I remember when I was young and in the Minors, our season would be over by now," Wilson said. "So to play the extra month is like a bonus. But to be on a team that is going to the playoffs is the ultimate achievement." Wilson can't wait to get there. The Rangers still have to hold off the Angels, and that will not be easy. But Wilson is easily one of the biggest reasons why the Rangers are in first place and why they have increasingly high hopes for October. Wilson is 7-3 with a 2.69 ERA since the All-Star break while thriving in the intense record-breaking Texas heat. Last week, he was the American League Player of the Week while pitching 17 scoreless innings in victories over the Rays and Athletics. Right now, he is rivaling Justin Verlander as the best pitcher in the league. "C.J. is throwing the ball extremely well," club president Nolan Ryan said. He has been building for this over the past two years since moving into the rotation. All the conditioning, all the preparation, all the focus, all the experience and everything he has learned about being a starting pitcher are coming into play as the Rangers zero in on another division title. "I figured out what it was all about last year, and this year, I'm able to apply it toward taking that extra step," Wilson said. "Last season, I spent the first half figuring things out and got in a second-half groove. I got on a run, my mechanics were dialed in and my concentration was set. Last year, I peaked in August; this year, I wanted to peak in September, because I can be more valuable to my team in the stretch run. "Once I got to about 50 starts, the light bulb came on. I was able to make adjustments faster. If I made a mistake, it doesn't take me two or three pitches to get back on track. I've worked through all the issues of being a starter. "It's all about being at your best and being at a high level of focus. Physically, you don't know how you're going to be on a given day, but mentally, you've got to give it your best. I'm not Verlander, who can throw 100 mph. It's more about my ability to manage situations." Wilson still has tremendous physical gifts: a power left-hander who can throw 90-plus with a variety of other pitches, including a cut fastball, curve, slider, changeup and whatever other pitch that he invents on that particular day. But what Wilson has accomplished this year goes beyond just physical talent. His focus, preparation and work ethic are at the top of the charts. Last year, there was much talk in the second half about how Cliff Lee would rub off on his new teammates after he was acquired from the Mariners. Now, Wilson holds that place of honor. "He is a student of the game and everybody knows it," pitcher Darren Oliver said. "When he's out there, he's selfish. He doesn't want to give up any runs or hits. He's stingy. C.J. is locked in for every situation. You know you're going to get the best out of C.J. "There's no doubt he is better this year. He just gets better and better. Last year was his first year as a starter, and he was feeling himself out. Now, he's figured it out and just gets better and better. He has been carrying us in September. That's the difference between a good pitcher and a really good pitcher. He turns it up when you really need it." As Texas heads to the finish line, there has been concern about the endurance of its other starters. The Rangers continue to tinker with their rotation to give Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison extra rest. Colby Lewis is now in a stretch where he will get eight days off between starts. There are no such concerns about Wilson. The Rangers are taking the opposite approach with him. He is pitching every fifth day regardless of the schedule.
"He is motivated. This is a guy who is ready for any challenge, and the bigger the challenge the bigger the response."
|-- Pitching coach Mike Maddux, on C.J. Wilson|
"He's got tremendous work ethic, and in baseball, that's what it is all about: work ethic and application," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He understands this heat and is in great shape and he is prepared. After that, all he has to do is the tough part, and that's execution."After all, what's a little heat compared to stepping into a cryogenic chamber and experiencing minus-290-degree temperatures swirling around the body and getting the blood pumping. Wilson heard that the Dallas Mavericks used whole-body cryotherapy, and if it's good enough for the NBA champions, why not find out if it works for you? The Rangers certainly supported him, and the results since then have been resounding. "It comes well recommended from the Mavericks," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "There are a lot of things out there on the cutting edge. This might become a good thing. This might become the standard." The Rangers have long known that Wilson does things his own way and maintains multiple interests outside his day job that have nothing to do with baseball. Not many pitchers are into surfing, photographing wildlife in the Transvaal in Africa or driving fast cars around race tracks. Greg Maddux certainly didn't on his way to four Cy Young Awards and 355 wins. But he did love to play 18 holes of golf whenever he had the chance, and that had nothing to do with baseball. Or did it? Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki can play a mean saxophone almost as well as he can hit an off-balance jumper with LeBron James standing in front of him. "Outside interests are good," Mike Maddux said. "Everybody has to get away. It keeps everything fresh instead of being overwhelmed with the situation. You get a mental shower." Whatever it takes to get the job done, and Wilson is doing that. He was the Rangers' Opening Day pitcher, he is pitching like a No. 1 starter and now the next step is to carry that into the playoffs. Last year, the Rangers also looked to Lee to carry them through. He did that through the first two rounds, and Texas went to the World Series. Now Lee is in Philadelphia, and Wilson inherits those same expectations into the playoffs. "He is motivated," Maddux said. "This is a guy who is ready for any challenge, and the bigger the challenge the bigger the response." Playoff experience helps, and Wilson was 1-2 with a 3.70 ERA in four starts during the postseason last year. He beat the Rays in the AL Division Series with 6 1/3 scoreless innings, and a blown save cost him a win in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees. A blister forced a premature end to a terrific outing in Game 2 of the World Series against the Giants. Wilson learned a few things along the way. "Yeah, that our schedule plays second fiddle to the big teams on the East Coast," Wilson said. "You know why we're playing at noon or at three o'clock in all the shadows ... oh yeah, because other teams have to play at night." There was more than just that. "There was a lot of pressure, but it was fun," Wilson said. "You have to have a lot of confidence in your own team, and I do. I know we have a great team. I know what we're capable of. I know I just have to go out there and get the other guys out, whether I'm pitching Game 1 or whenever, and our offense will do the rest." The southpaw knows the Rangers are placing much on his shoulders. "It's cool," Wilson said. "The way I felt during the season last year, I knew guys were counting on me. You've got to count on yourself. The better you do, the more responsibility there is and the more responsibility you have to back that up." This is his time of the year to do just that.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.