By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON — J.B. Wendelken has embraced the role of reliever while never forgetting his start.
The Arizona Diamondbacks righthander returned to his high school alma mater South Effingham on Dec. 14 for a ceremony retiring the No. 14 he proudly wore for the Mustangs before graduating in 2011.
“It’s unbelievable, just the sheer fact that (South Effingham is) willing to put my name out there (as an example of) the future for other guys,” said Wendelken, who is in the area preparing for the 2022 baseball season while working out in Statesboro.
Currently, there’s a Major League Baseball lockout as the players union and the league try to come to terms with a new collective bargaining agreement.
“Right now, with the lockout, everything is a question mark,” Wendelken said.
Spring training, normally starting in mid-February, is now up in the air. Arizona’s 2022 season opener is scheduled March 31 against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Wendelken, 28, wants to be ready.
“I’m working out like crazy. I work out and throw baseballs. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. I’m not going to stop now,” he said.
Preparedness, dedication and perseverance have been hallmarks of Wendelken’s career. He missed the entire 2017 season because of Tommy John surgery and had to fight through a torn oblique last season.
Wendelken was waived by Oakland but picked up by the struggling Diamondback in August. And the solidly built 6-foot-1, 242-pounder showed he still possessed a fastball in the upper 90s. He went 2-2 with a 4.34 earned run average and registered the first two saves of his career during the final months of the season.
In the heat of the pennant race, Wendelken throttled the eventual World Series champion Atlanta Braves with a one-two-three ninth inning to preserve a 6-4 Arizona win.
“That was a dream come true right there and it was a save,” Wendelken said. “I never had an opportunity for a save (before 2021). It was fun.
“It wasn’t a great year, but I could handle it. Coming off a torn oblique, it was about getting back out there and having fun. I feel very confident (going into the 2022 season). I put myself in a good situation. I showed what I could do and the team wanted me back and that’s all you can ask for.”
Arizona showed its appreciation by giving Wendelken a one-year, $835,000 deal after the season to avoid arbitration.
In parts of five major-league seasons, Wendelken has an 8-5 record with a 3.72 ERA.
Ironically, his baseball career parallels another South Effingham grad, Josh Reddick, who is six years older.
Both attended Middle Georgia after graduating from SEHS. Both were drafted by the Boston Red Sox – Wendelken in the 13th round of the 2012 MLB draft, Reddick in the 17th round of 2006.
Both were traded to the Oakland A’s and, when Wendelken was called up from the minors in 2016, Reddick was the team’s right fielder.
“I know him personally, but I haven’t talked to him in a long time,” Wendelken said. “Following in his footsteps was always an honor. When guys come from this (SEHS) program and get drafted, make it to the big leagues or play ball anywhere, it’s impressive. I’m glad we had a (place) to start from and be able to build up.”
At South Effingham, Wendelken played two years for coach Tony Kirkland and two years for coach Ron Womack. As a senior, Wendelken went 11-3 as a pitcher and hit more than .400.
Womack introduced Wendelken to the SEHS crowd at halftime of the Mustangs basketball game with Statesboro.
“(Wendelken) had an extreme amount of talent, but it takes the intangibles to get where he is today,” Womack said. “Hard work, the drive, the dedication. … He helped us win a lot of ball games.”