Colorful reliever has locked down eighth-inning role for Dodgers
LOS ANGELES -- It seemed pretty normal, the Dodgers using their setup man in the eighth inning of Games 1 and 2 of the National League Division Series. That's what setup men do.
But there's nothing normal about the Dodgers' setup man, or haven't you ever seen Brian Wilson? He's the guy with the famous jet-black beard and mohawk, sometimes pulled back in a ponytail, wearing the dark glasses in the clubhouse, the ones with the built-in stereo earbuds.
He's showing up so early on game days for conditioning drills that Clayton Kershaw now has company. And when batting practice is over, he'll usually have huge grass stains all over his uniform from diving catches no pitcher should attempt.
Oh, and have you seen his green sequined dress shoes?
That's Wilson. It's no costume.
"He's real," said fellow Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell. "It's not a facade, it's really him. He's an animal, you know? He wants to do anything he can to win. You know what he looks like to me? A winner."
At 31, he also looks healthy enough for that rebuilt ligament to throw 96 mph on consecutive nights, which is probably a surprise to most clubs, especially the San Francisco Giants. Wilson was still recovering from his second Tommy John elbow operation last winter when they non-tendered their World Series closer.
"He wouldn't say this, but I'm sure a lot of people didn't think he'd be doing what he's doing after all he's been through," said veteran reliever Peter Moylan. "He took extra time off, rehabbed at [Triple-A] Albuquerque like it was Spring Training, and I feel he's just hitting his stride."
While some Tommy John patients rush back in a year or less, Wilson rehabilitated the injury for 17 long months, held a workout for interested clubs when he was good and ready, then signed with the Dodgers for $1 million July 30 because he wanted to help a club get to October and beyond.
"I had surgery and I had fear when I came back. He had zero," said Howell. "Just his makeup. He didn't even have a question that he'd be healthy. Just how he is."
Wilson was activated Aug. 19, made 18 regular-season appearances and allowed one earned run, with 13 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings. When he pitched scoreless innings Thursday and Friday, it marked the fifth time he's pitched on consecutive days.
"When he got here, he didn't have a defined role and we found in the Cincinnati series [in early September] that the one thing we didn't want to do anymore was get him up and down," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "Now we try to be definitive: This is your inning. He warms up and we get him in. And he's pitched his way into this role."
The role is setup to young closer Kenley Jansen, which had been filled by Ronald Belisario against the toughest right-handed hitters and Paco Rodriguez against lefties. But for a World Series closer who obviously loves the spotlight, he's made sure not to step on toes.
"I'm not doing anything special," he said. "I'm getting outs, what I'm supposed to do, what I'm paid to do."
While Wilson has been dominating since his arrival, Rodriguez had a 5.68 ERA in September (his problems continued in Game 2) and Belisario had a 7.94 ERA in September.
"Lefty, righty, he's getting basically everybody out when he pitches," manager Don Mattingly said of Wilson. "He's solidified that inning for us and enabled us to shorten the game. We were mixing and matching to get to Kenley; now we're mixing and matching to get to Wilson and you're getting those last two innings off."
His new teammates, once they got to know Wilson, were pleasantly surprised to learn there's a lot under that getup.
"He doesn't let anything rattle him," said Jansen. "When we get late in the game, he gets locked in. I watch him. He's a good teammate. He looked mean, serious on the other side and you don't know what to expect. But he tells some crazy jokes. He's a cool guy to be around."
"I didn't know he was that smart and witty," said Howell. "He pays attention and picks up on things. I think he's got a photographic memory. When he got here, he gave everybody some space. He handled it well, coming to a new team in the middle of the season."
"I knew he was talented, but I never thought he was that knowledgeable about the game until I talked and hung out with him and learned that on the mental side, he's extremely strong," said Rodriguez. "He's one of the brightest people I've played with. He's got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. There's a lot of things you don't think about, but he does."
Wilson, who resumed domino games with former Giants teammate Juan Uribe, said there is one easy comparison to make between his current club and his former one.
"It's a similar clubhouse in that everyone gets along," Wilson said. "A lot of big names, a lot of superstars. That said, as long as we play our game, it's really fun to be part of this club."