Pitching Ace Burns to be the Best

Sophomore Grant Wilhelm anchors Laguna's pitching staff. Photo by Bill Rees.

After a 3-4 start, the Breakers baseball team has won eight of 10, including the last four in a row at the Lions Tournament, to raise their season mark to 11-6 as of last Monday. A big part of the team’s recent surge has been the stellar play of Grant Wilhelm, who hit .472 over that span to raise his season average to .377.


Wilhelm has driven in (17) or scored (13) 30 of his team’s last 83 runs, and he’s done it with power, notching four doubles, a triple and a homer in 17 hits over 36 at bats. But for all the noise he’s made of late with his bat, his real value to the team is in his right arm, which he has been leveraging to its fullest, both on defense from his center field position and from the mound as Laguna’s ace.


“He has a cannon of an arm,” said first year varsity coach Mike Bair, who replaced Jeff Sears after leading the JV team to an incredible 20-1 record last season.


As a freshman, Wilhelm went 6-0 for that JV squad, finishing the season with a miniscule 1.74 ERA after going his final 26 innings of work without giving up an earned run. So far this season, he has picked up where he left off.  Through last Monday, Wilhelm was 5-1. “Success on the mound last year has simply translated into this year,” said Bair, who was confident his young ace would adjust well to the varsity level.


“I just try and throw strikes and do my best every time and see what happens,” said Wilhelm, who, at 6’2”, is not intimidated by anyone.


“He’s fearless. I think that’s a huge a part of it,” said Bair. “He’s not afraid to see if a hitter can hit his best stuff.”


Wilhelm didn’t have his best stuff in Laguna’s league opening loss to Estancia March 16 at Skipper Carrillo Field. Through last Monday, it was still the only blemish on Wilhelm’s high school record, including JV.


After the Breakers staged a furious rally, scoring three runs to pull within one of the Eagles after six, Bair put Wilhelm in an unusual position; he made him a reliever. It was the third time the coach had used his ace in relief dating back to last season. But it was the first time with the game on the line. “We were hoping he could kind of hang on for us until we could get to bat and win the game,” said Bair.


Wilhelm held Estancia scoreless in the seventh, after which Laguna tied the game to force extra innings. In the top of the eighth, with a runner on first, Wilhelm got what looked like an easy double play grounder. Robbie McInerny took the toss from shortstop Preston Grand Pre and tagged second base for the first out. But as McInerny turned to make the relay to first for the second out, a hard-sliding Estancia runner upended the second baseman and forced an errant throw that allowed a runner to score.


After a lengthy discussion between Bair and the umpires over whether the Estancia player had slid late and, therefore, interfered with McInerny’s throw, interference was not called, and the inning continued, with Estancia scoring three more runs to take a 10-6 lead.


The incident seemed to squash the Breaker’s spirit, and they went down in order in their half of the eighth. The tough loss ignited a fire that has been burning in Wilhelm ever since.


In his last three starts since that forgettable day, Wilhelm has been nearly unhittable. He has not allowed an earned run over 19 straight innings, while striking out 26 and giving up only six hits. His season ERA has plummeted from a pedestrian 4.31 to a stellar 1.75.


“I do think [the Estancia game] played a part,” said Bair of Wilhelm’s run. “Whether it’s as a starter or to close, you’ve got to go out there to compete,” he said.


Wilhelm competes primarily with heat, but he also knows how and when to change speeds. “When a hitter has to think about his change-up too, it can make that fast ball more effective,” said Bair.


Not even halfway through his high school career, Wilhelm is already gearing for a chance to play college baseball, working in the weight room, working on his arm, working on his swing. “He spends that extra time to improve, and it’s really shown,” said Bair. “I think that separates him from a lot of people.”


Although he takes his training seriously, Wilhelm is fairly relaxed in his game-day preparation. “I’ve never scouted an opponent,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s like the worst team or the best team, I just do my best every single time.”


“He’s a happy go lucky kid,” said Bair, but “when it’s game time, he’s ready to go.”


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