'Deathbed' to Draft: Rays take P Wicklander

July 14th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- One Saturday last May, Patrick Wicklander was scheduled to throw a bullpen session in Fayetteville, Ark. He’d been feeling bad for weeks, dropping a lot of weight in little time. It finally reached the point that he called his bullpen catcher and told him he couldn’t make it to throw. Instead, Wicklander called an Uber -- he didn’t have his car in town -- and rode to an urgent care clinic.

There, Wicklander found himself dozing off in the waiting room. He weighed in at 169 pounds, down from 210 about three weeks earlier. He felt exhausted, and his breathing was labored. Wicklander thought he must have contracted COVID-19. Then came the unexpected news.

“They’re like, ‘We’re 98 percent sure you’re Type 1 diabetic and you have diabetic ketoacidosis,’” Wicklander recalled in a phone interview with MLB.com, “‘and we don’t know how you’re walking.’”

Wicklander was then taken to the emergency room at Washington Regional Medical Center, where he said his dangerously high blood sugar levels surpassed 530 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). He was told that, at 550 mg/dL, his organs would start shutting down, and if they reached 600 mg/dL, he’d go into a diabetic coma.

“I was at 535 and going up in the ER,” he said. “I was told I was a walking miracle by every doctor that saw me.”

Wicklander spent about 12 hours in the emergency room, with two IVs in each arm. He spent two or three days in the intensive care unit, then two more nights in the hospital. A year later, the Razorbacks' left-hander was establishing himself as one of the best starting pitchers in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference. And on Monday, the Rays selected him in the eighth round, 251st overall, of the MLB Draft.

That scary situation, and the diagnosis that he had Type 1 diabetes, obviously changed a lot for Wicklander. How he monitors his health. How he takes care of his body. How he uses his platform. And, in a way, how he views pitching.

“You’ll hear about pitchers being scared to throw to guys or they have a mental block. I’m like, ‘Dude, I was on my deathbed. So at this point, who cares?’” Wicklander said. “I’ve been on my deathbed. Let’s get after it.”

Wicklander, 21, said several members of his family have or had diabetes: His uncle, grandfathers and grandmother among them. But their symptoms presented themselves over the course of several months. Wicklander said his came in less than a month while he remained in Fayetteville in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. His vision blurred so badly that he couldn’t read his alarm clock from five feet away, and he struggled through basic tasks like taking a shower.

When he was hospitalized, Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs couldn’t do anything but worry. Coaches and teammates couldn’t see him, and they didn’t know how he’d respond. Put simply, they were scared. The way Wicklander has managed the diagnosis has clearly changed their minds.

“He just embraced it and figured out not only how to live with it, but how to thrive with it,” Hobbs said by phone. “It’s been incredibly impressive.”

The way he’s pitched with it is pretty impressive, too. When he first got back on the mound, he thought it’d be a good day if his fastball sat around 86-88 mph. His first pitch clocked in at 92.4 mph. When he returned to campus and started facing hitters, he was touching 93-94 mph -- “the best I’ve thrown,” he said.

“And I was like, if I can figure this out during the season, it’s going to be fun,” Wicklander said.

It was. With his health under control and a better understanding of his body, his conditioning improved. His performance in the weight room got better. He developed routines and learned the importance of keeping them. Hobbs said there had been times as a freshman and sophomore that Wicklander looked like a different pitcher from outing to outing, but he was as consistent as one can be this spring.

“Not to sound dramatic, but it’s seriously life or death at this point,” he said. “I can’t be too high in my blood sugar, can’t be too low. You really focus on that, and it adds to everything you do in life.”

“He was diligent,” Hobbs added. “Very diligent.”

Eventually, Wicklander moved out of the bullpen and became Arkansas’ Friday night starter. He finished the season 7-1 with a 2.09 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, 85 strikeouts and 24 walks in 77 2/3 innings. His fastball velocity ticked up a bit, sitting in the 90-93 mph range, touching 96, and he threw it well inside against right-handed hitters. His slider wiped out lefties. And he maintained his stuff better as he worked deeper into outings.

Wicklander did all that while pitching with an insulin pump -- “what looked like a cell phone in his back pocket,” Hobbs said -- and monitoring his blood sugar between innings.

“When I’m on the field, I don’t really notice it or pay attention to it. Thankfully, I haven’t really had any setbacks on the mound,” Wicklander said. “I have a really good grasp on what it takes in between each inning to make sure I’m not going to shoot too high or shoot too low.”

As people heard of Wicklander’s story, he gained more attention. The national attention initially blew him away. Now, he’s embraced the idea of being a sort of role model for kids with Type 1 diabetes, stating a desire to show, “Hey, this isn’t going to handicap you.”

Wicklander will have a new audience soon. After selecting him on Day 2 of the Draft, the Rays' amateur scouting director said the club was encouraged by his quality stuff, his feel for pitching and his performance in the SEC this spring. The lefty said the opportunity to play professional baseball is something he’s dreamed about since he first picked up a ball, and he’s excited about what he’s heard about Tampa Bay’s organization.

After what happened last year, Wicklander came back better than ever. What’s next?

“He’s a really good pitcher, and I always like to see guys like him. There’s still some meat on the bone to his development. It’s not like he’s a finished product yet, so he’s got more work to do,” Hobbs said. “I’m super excited for Pat to have an opportunity to play with a great organization that has a strong value in player development. I feel like it couldn’t be a better fit for him. I’m excited about getting a chance to just see where he takes it.”