Mid-Atlantic Regional Preview
Seven-time Major League Baseball All-Star closer Billy Wagner was born in Tannersville, Va., nearly 41 years ago as a natural right-handed thrower.
But, according to several documented accounts, after twice breaking his right arm as a youngster, Wagner decided to turn himself into a left-hander, and honed his throwing motion by throwing thousands of baseballs against the side of the barn. He graduated from Tazewell (Va.) High School in 1990 and was eventually selected in the first round of the 1993 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros.
Now, just about 20 years later, another Tazewell High left-hander is in the news. But even after senior Zak Wasilewski was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in the fall of his junior year in high school, he didn’t convert to a right-handed thrower.
He remained a lefty and has come back from the surgery feeling better than ever, and has emerged as one of the top left-handers in the Perfect Game Mid-Atlantic Region (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Rhode Island).
Wasilewski will pitch again this season for the Tazewell Bulldogs and long-time head coach Lou Peery after being limited to only designated-hitter duty in 2011. Tazewell is scheduled to open its season Wednesday (March 7).
“I can’t wait to get going,” Wasilewski said in a recent telephone interview with Perfect Game. “We were ranked third in our state in the preseason in (Class) AA and we’re all pretty excited about that. I’m just ready to get back out on the mound and hit, too. I can’t wait; it’s going to be great.”
Despite undergoing the reconstructive elbow surgery and not pitching at all in 2011, Wasilewski never dropped out of sight. He enters his senior season ranked as the nation’s 161st top over prospect in the class of 2012 and the No. 16 left-handed pitcher. He is ranked the No. 313 top overall prospect in the upcoming MLB Draft, meaning he’s projected to be selected in at least one of the first 10 rounds.
Wasilewski received a lot of exposure by participating in five Perfect Game events in 2010, before his surgery. His first experience came at the 2010 PG Jr. National Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and followed that with appearances at the PG WWBA 2011 Grads or 17u National Championship; the PG WWBA 2012 Grads or 16u National Championship; the PG National Games-Class of 2012; and the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.
He played in the WWBA tournaments with the Fredericksburg, Va.-based Canes Baseball.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better; I had a lot of good times,” Wasilewski said of his PG experiences. “I liked playing in Tropicana – that was awesome playing with all those other great players that were out there. It’s just a different world, almost.”
The 2010 WWBA Underclass World Championship was held Oct. 8-10 in Fort Myers, Fla., and Wasilewski underwent the Tommy John procedure about two weeks later.
“I was throwing one day and I threw about two or three innings and I threw well, and then (my arm) just kind of went dead,” he said.
His surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon who has performed that and other procedures on numerous high-profile athletes.
“It’s pretty exciting – I think I’m better now than what I ever was,” Wasilewski said. “I’ve got a lot more command … and I’ve been pounding it with all three pitches.”
Wasilewski’s fastball reached 91 mph at PG events before the surgery and he reports that he was back throwing 91 during a January workout. He expects that velocity to only increase as the spring progresses.
He also said he went into the surgical procedure with an open mind.
“I was a little apprehensive, but I knew with my work ethic and that all I care about is baseball, and I just knew I had to bounce back and work hard and do good in therapy to get back to where I wanted to be,” Wasilewski said. “My goal is to play in college and Major League Baseball so it wasn’t a problem – you just have to push through adversity.”
Wasilewski also wields a powerful bat. He is Tazewell High’s career home run leader with 21 – he hit nine in his DH role last season – and in 69 varsity games over three season he’s hit .498 (109-for-219), driven in 98 runs and scored 117.
When he’s not pitching this season, he will start in center field. A PG scouting report written after the 2010 PG National Games-Class of 2012 noted that Wasilewski is a “highest-level follow on the mound, strong arm from the outfield, has a fast bat, has power potential, projects well (and) made hard game contact. Two-way talent but stands out on the mound.”
Wasilewski has signed a letter-of-intent with two-time defending national champion South Carolina, and on the day he signed his letter, Tazewell Coach Peery told the Bluefield (W.V.) Daily Telegraph that “It’s a big honor for kids to go on to college and pursue their dream.”
Peery went on to tell the Daily Telegraph that Wasilewski’s association with the Canes at the PG WWBA tournaments was very beneficial: “It’s important, because instead of seeing one quality pitcher every five or six days you’re going to see one every game you play. And the more quality players you play against, and play with, the higher quality player you become.
“Like I say, you can shine in a small pond, but when you get in a big pond and you’re still shinin’, you got a real dollar on your hands.”
South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner and his Gamecock staff was undeterred in their pursuit Wasilewski, even after his surgery.
“They just pushed me and told me everything was going to be all right. They had a lot of confidence in me,” Wasilewski said. “I went down there for a visit and we watched a basketball game and they showed me around, and Ii just really enjoyed being down there. The facilities, the coaches, the fans – it was just the greatest experience.”
As for Wagner, he returns home to Tazewell on occasion to run camps, and Wasilewski said he has had conversations with the man who retired with 422 career saves – No. 5 on MLB’s all-time list behind only Mariano Rivera (603), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478) and John Franco (424).
“He talked to me over the phone and we talked about the Tommy John (surgery), and he gave me advice on it and told me not overwork it,” Wasilewski said. “He told me what I should be doing and what I shouldn’t be doing and that I shouldn’t try to come back too early. He’s a really good guy.
“I’ve always looked up to Billy,” he continued. “I saw him pitch when I was probably about 12 and I got his autograph, and he’s always come back and helped our community out. It’s pretty cool.”
Tazewell is a town of roughly 4,200 residents, and Wagner just might its most famous export.
“Tazewell is a really small town, and you pretty much know everybody in this town,” Wasilewski said. “To see somebody like that do what he’s done is special, and with his work ethic and stuff like that, I try to be just like him.”
One way Wasilewski hopes to emulate Wagner is to follow him into professional baseball. If he can prove to scouts this spring that his left arm is as good – if not even better – than ever, he just might get his chance sooner than later.
“I’m hoping to get drafted and see how everything plays out. It’s going to be a tough decision,” Wasilewski said. “It’s pretty crazy and I’m pretty happy about it, because all of that hard work is starting to pay off, just to be in this situation.”