I never thought I’d be typing that headline. Over the course of the four seasons that I covered Kevin Whelan (2007-2010) in Trenton, I was probably more critical of him than I was of just about any other player. It wasn’t because I disliked Kevin — not at all, I think we actually got along fairly well — but it was because he could be a pretty frustrating guy to watch pitch.
The talent was never in question, but the inconsistency was maddening. He continues to possess one of the best split-finger fastballs you’ll see, which is all the more impressive when you consider he’s converted catcher…but especially after last season, where he posted an ERA over 5.50 in each of his stops at Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, you had to wonder if the big leagues were going to be a realistic possibility for him.
And then he started the season in Scranton, slid into the closer’s role, and was just about lights out. His name started getting mentioned as a possible call-up for the Yankees, and soon afterwards, there he was…so how did it all happen?
How did Whelan get things turned around? While Whelan was in the big leagues, I was able to spend some time with the personable Texan in the New York Yankees clubhouse and asked him everything that was on my mind and hopefully some of your minds as well. And, as I told him when our conversation was over, I know I was hard on him…but I’m awfully happy he got a chance to pitch in pinstripes. Here’s how our chat went…
Mike Ashmore: You spent parts of the past four seasons in Trenton…was there ever a moment where you let yourself think this might not happen for you?
Kevin Whelan: “Honestly, no. There were times, especially times last year, where I struggled with it and was kind of lost. But I always knew I could do it. Last year was probably the closest I’ve been…to just questioning things, I didn’t know what was going on. Tommy (Phelps) helped me through it, and we found some things. I knew I could do it. Honestly, the biggest thing was I prayed and said, ‘If this isn’t for me, God, then take me out of the game.’ But I’m still in it and this is where I am now.”
Ashmore: So what did you do last year to straighten things out? I remember there were some tough times last season — you walked five guys in an inning, etc. — but in the end, you seemed to be headed in the right direction…
Whelan: “It was tough, I got so out of whack, honestly. I just didn’t feel comfortable, didn’t know what I was doing. I just kind of relaxed. But the biggest thing I did was quit worrying so much and say, ‘You know what, it’s a game.’ Tommy and I found some film from when I pitched in the Cape, that’s when I first started really pitching. And it was like OK, let’s see what you did before you had any coaching or anything. It looked good. So I just kind of said let’s do that again, and things started to click from there. I quit putting so much pressure on myself and just let myself have fun with it and see where it goes.”
Ashmore: I’ve seen you pitch so many times, and I know that things tend to snowball one way or the other…when you’re on, you’re lights out, and when you’re not, it might take a few outings to get things right. But this year in Scranton, you were consistently on top of your game for the entire season. What did it feel like to have that long stretch where you were pretty much lights out?
Whelan: “It was good, I knew I could do it. I think the biggest thing was to just learn how to control it, learn to control the game. I had a gameplan for myself and I knew what I wanted to do on the mound. I wasn’t thinking mechanics or I have to do this, I have to do that. I let my ability take over and it was good, but I think the biggest thing was just to continue and build off every outing. There were some outings where I didn’t throw well, I blew the first save of the season. But I didn’t put so much pressure on myself where it was like, ‘Dang, now what do I do?’ I just said that I didn’t do my job and they hit me that day, and I went out there and went the same thing the next day and it worked.”
Ashmore: What kind of clicked that kind of allowed you to let things go? A lot of people have said that it’s a mental thing for you when things go bad…how were you able to let all that go?
Whelan: “It may sound corny, but I handed it over to God. I said, ‘You know what, You’ve got a plan for me, and I’m just going to trust it.’ I’m here playing baseball and I’m in this situation right now, this is where I’m supposed to be. Just let it go, let it happen. Quit worrying about it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I don’t play baseball anymore? Well, big deal. I’ve got other things in life. I just kind of relaxed and played the game.”
Ashmore: I’m sure you started hearing your name as far as a call-up to the Bronx goes just like everyone else did…when did you start thinking that coming up to the Yankees could be a realistic possibility for you?
Whelan: “Honestly, I tried to keep it out. I tried not to think about it. The funny thing is, the day I got called up, I had some people call me and text me. And I was like, look I’m still in Scranton and I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve got a game tonight I’ve got to get ready for. And then they pulled me out of the stretch and it happened. The biggest thing was just trying to stay grounded. If it happens, it does. If it doesn’t, I’m going to continue to do my job here and hope someone notices.”
Ashmore: Take me through that moment when you found out you were going up…
Whelan: “It was crazy. Scotty (Aldred) and (Dave) Miley, both of those guys were excited. I’ve been with them for a little while as well, especially Scotty, and we put in a lot of hard work. Everything kind of came together. It’s a feeling you can’t really explain. I called my wife, and she was going crazy. Then I had to call my parents, and it was a fun and exciting time. It’s something I won’t forget.”
Ashmore: The debut…I know the numbers probably weren’t what you wanted, but what was that experience like to finally get out there in the majors?
Whelan: “Honestly, the crowd and the fans, I didn’t notice any of that. It felt like the same thing. I think where I got a little out of control was I had two outs and I was like, ‘All right, I’m about to get out of this,’ and the adrenaline took over. I’ve got to be able to slow the game down, and that’s what I’ve been doing so well in Scranton. I was able to do that (in my second outing). I didn’t feel 100 percent like myself, but I think it’s going to get better and better each outing.”
Ashmore: Have you had time to kind of soak all this in? We’re not in Trenton anymore…it’s ridiculous here…have you had time to kind of just look around and take everything in?
Whelan: “Yesterday was probably the first time I got to take a deep breath and kind of take it in. The first two days I was pretty nervous and all like what’s going on, but yesterday I came out and stretched early and just got a chance to be on the field. The first two days, I didn’t get here the first day until 6:30, and then the next day was a 1 o’clock game. So I didn’t get a chance to be on the field and just stretch and feel like I was doing my thing at a baseball game again. I got to do that and shagged a little BP and today doing it. It’s feeling better and better.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com — Interview done June 12, 2011