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Wendelken gives home crowd plenty to cheer about
Family, friends root on SEHS grad, visiting Greenville Drive all weekend at Grayson
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JB Wendelken had dozens of family and friends in attendance at Grayson Stadium, including his dad Jeffery Wendelken. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

SAVANNAH — The roars and cheers rumbled through Grayson Stadium late in a tie game. This time, though, the shouts of excitement and encouragement weren’t directed at the hometown Savannah Sand Gnats but for a hometown kid taking the mound against them.

The family and friends of JB Wendelken were numerous and vocal throughout the weekend at Grayson Stadium as Wendelken and the Greenville Drive closed out the first half of the South Atlantic League schedule against the Gnats.

“It’s wonderful,” said Jeffrey Wendelken, JB’s dad. “I don’t know how you would put it.”

With the throng of supporters entrenched behind Greenville’s dugout at the end of the Grayson Stadium, the young Wendelken gave them reasons to drown out the more than 3,000 fans in attendance Friday night.

Wendelken entered Friday night’s game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the game knotted 1-1. He struck out Cole Frenzel and Jeff Reynolds, inducing raucous ovations from his cheering section, and got Phillip Evans to fly out to right field to end the inning.

In the 10th inning, Wendelken retired the side in order again, with a called third strike to end Mets’ 2011 first-round draft pick Brandon Nimmo’s at-bat.

“You can’t ask for any better,” said Jeffrey Wendelken.

The Drive ended the first half of the season in Savannah. The SAL all-star game splits the two halves of the regular season, and that break allows Wendelken to spend nearly an entire week at home. Greenville opens the second half at home Thursday against Hagerstown.

“It worked out our last series was right here in Savannah,” he said. “They can drive me back.”

Wendelken left 40 passes for Thursday night’s series opener, and a similar number for the remaining games. He said he knew not all of them would be used, but he also wanted to make sure there were enough to go around.

“I didn’t want to undershoot it,” he said. “You can’t put too many out. They haven’t seen me pitch in three months.”

As a reliever, Wendelken doesn’t know from one game to the next if he’ll get the call to go in. He’s appeared in 16 games, the most for any of Greenville’s relievers, and with 49 innings pitched, he’s logged the fifth-most innings of any Drive hurler.

“If the starter gets in trouble, I go in,” he said. “That’s basically a reliever’s life. You never know when you’re going in.”

Drafted last year by the Boston Red Sox, Wendelken pitched one year at Middle Georgia College and posted eye-popping numbers. In 46 innings, he struck 54 batters and allowed one earned run.

Assigned to the Gulf Coast Red Sox in the Rookie League, Wendelken racked up 28 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings and yielded just three earned runs.  He isn’t piling up the strikeouts as rapidly as he has, but the organization also has fine-tuned his delivery.

After he signed with the Red Sox last year, Wendelken noticed in a video session he was stooping as he pitched. It caused his pitches to be flat and took away from his pitches’ movement.

“They got me standing tall and driving down,” he said, “so there’s more angle on my ball.”

His family, though, was happy to see the punchouts accumulate Friday night.

“Ground balls are what they are looking for,” said Jeffrey Wendelken. “But he’s getting strikeouts, and that’s what we want anyway.”

Wendelken has taken to the life of a minor leaguer. The long bus rides as the Drive rides from Greenville to Hagerstown, Md., Salisbury, Md., Charleston, W.Va., Lakewood, N.J., and points in between. Yet Wendelken is enjoying the ride.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I love it. It’s not that big of a difference. But the traveling is a lot of fun. The facilities are 10 times better than in high school and in college, I can tell you that.”

Unlike most minor leaguers in Single-A ball, Wendelken has a place of its own, and his family has been a frequent visitor to Greenville, S.C., just four hours north. The week at home, thanks to the fortuitous schedule, means being able to spend time with friends and family that isn’t normally available in the middle of the season.

“It’s wonderful,” said Jeffery Wendelken. “All his friends came to the house, all his family, everybody came over. Thursday night, he was up real late visiting with all his buddies.”

Life in the minors isn’t always fun, even if it is a lot of games. The Drive roster includes catcher Jordan Weems, the Red Sox third-round selection in 2011, and 2011 fifth-round pick Mookie Betts. Fellow 2012  draft picks Pat Light, a supplemental first-rounder, third-rounder Austin Maddox and sixth-rounder Justin Haley also are on the Drive’s pitching staff.

The next rung up is Salem (Va.), Boston’s high Single-A team in the Carolina League.

“Everybody’s battling for a position,” Wendelken said. “That was the only thing we had a head's-up for. Play your best. If you don’t like where you’re at, play better.”

It was difficult for Wendelken to fathom he was in Grayson Stadium as a professional baseball player.

“Just growing up watching these guys, I always wanted to play with them or against them,” he said. “Finally getting the chance is pretty cool.”

It won’t be long before the Wendelkens are back at Grayson Stadium to cheer on JB — the Drive is scheduled to be in Savannah from July 12-15.

Watching his son throw two spotless innings Friday night and be able to come home was a thrill for Jeffery Wendelken.

“You can’t ask for any better,” he said.