Reliever Wilson takes advantage of Rodriguez's injury


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Monday night, Justin Wilson had the stage.

Pirates fans likely were vaguely aware of his 42/3 innings -- and the 13 baserunners allowed -- over eight appearances at the end of last season. Some might remember the two no-hitters he participated in with Class AAA Indianapolis, or the fluctuation between impressive swing-and-miss stuff and control issues while there.

Others might remember him as the fifth-round draft pick in 2008, and diehards will recall Wilson throwing 129 pitches in eight innings on three days' rest in the final game of the 2008 College World Series as Fresno State clinched the title.

For those who didn't, who knew Wilson simply as another member of the Pirates bullpen, Monday gave the 25-year-old left-hander a chance to alert the masses watching on TV in Pittsburgh.

He didn't disappoint. In three innings of relief after an injury forced Wandy Rodriguez out of the game in the third, Wilson carved up nine members of a predominantly right-handed Arizona Diamondbacks lineup.

"That was really good," manager Clint Hurdle said after the game.

Wilson's performance is best encapsulated by the fifth-inning at-bat for Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a right-handed batter who has hit .307 with a .397 on-base percentage and a .591 slugging percentage against left-handers in his three-year major league career.

Wilson started him out with a fastball for a called strike, then two two-seam fastballs that ran the count to 1-2. He throttled back, throwing two mid-70 mph curveballs as the count evened at 2-2. Goldschmidt swung through the final pitch, a 97 mph fastball that was 21 mph faster than the pitch before it.

"Hitting is timing," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "Pitching is deception, deception being getting him out [of] and in the timing. He's got a great separation between all his pitches, with angles, too. If he continues to throw strikes, it will be very tough for hitters to get a bead on him."

Wilson's changeup, he said, always has been on the hard side. He used to throw a split-change but couldn't slow it down. He uses a circle change now, modified slightly to accommodate the size of his hands. The curveball helps him create more separation in speed between his pitches.

"I used to throw it, truthfully, in college a lot more than anything," he said. "Then junior year of college, I went to more of a slider. Just these last few years, I've gone back to it. It's gotten better and better."

Wilson said that other than a drastic jump in velocity in 2011, the first time he pitched out of the bullpen regularly in the minors, his speed has increased gradually over the years. But now it has leveled off.

"That's the most velocity I've seen him have," Hurdle said Monday. "He's going 98. Throwing strikes, just filling up the zone with strikes."

Wilson has a five-pitch arsenal; the key, as Searage suggested, is that he has to control it. Wilson walked at least 4.3 batters per nine innings in each of his four minor league seasons. Last year, in his most impressive year in the minors, he struck out 138 batters in 1352/3 innings, had a 3.78 ERA and led the International League in opponents' batting average at .189.

He also walked 66 batters, one of the factors that made the Pirates consider him as a reliever. He came to spring training stretched out, though, and the team needed it for 35 pitches Monday.

The rotation soon will be overloaded when Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton return, so it is unlikely Wilson will get a chance to start, as he did in the minors for most of his four seasons there. Hurdle has not ruled out using a pitcher already on the roster, such as Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez or Chris Leroux, to start the game Sunday in place of Rodriguez.

Though the walk totals remained steady, Wilson's hits allowed and WHIP dropped in 2012. He said improving competition as he progressed through the higher levels of the minors forced him to improve.

"The next level you go up, that pitch you're throwing belt-high, you can no longer get away with," he said. "Those people are hitting it. You got to make your adjustments as you move up. I think that makes you better in general."

Wilson has made it to the highest level possible. And, at the very least, Goldschmidt likely will remember him.

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published April 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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