All-Star Wittgren grasping closer’s role

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has only been a professional baseball player for three and a half seasons now. But he’s starting to get accustomed to being named an All-Star.

The closer was one of two Zephyrs selected to the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game, to be played at Omaha’s Werner Park on July 15, along with starting pitcher Adam Conley.

Wittgren has now been chosen to represent four different leagues in mid-summer All-Star Games since being selected by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of Purdue.

“It’s awesome. Being selected with Conley is definitely an honor,” Wittgren said.

The 24-year-old right-hander was previously an All-Star in the New York-Penn League in 2012, the Florida State League in 2013 and the Southern League last season. But the bump up in level of play has elevated Wittgren’s performance, as he has tied for fourth in the Pacific Coast League with 10 saves since being promoted from Double-A Jacksonville in mid-April.

Wittgren said he started to grasp the mentality of being a closer when he got to Purdue after spending one season at Parkland College in Illinois.

“I thrive on pressure and it all started once I got to Purdue. My coach asked me if I wanted to close and I said ‘sure.’ It started from there,” he said. “Sure enough, I had success and he looked at me at the end of the season and asked if I wanted to start again and I said, ‘whatever you want, but I love closing.’ He said they were going to keep me there and I’ve been loving it since. I just love going out there and competing.”

Wittgren set a new school-record with 22 saves at Purdue and was the winning pitcher in the Big Ten Tournament championship game in 2012. He became the first Boilermaker to record a double-figure saves total in consecutive seasons and pitched to a 1.46 ERA for Jamestown in 17 games after being picked by the Marlins.

He has been on the fast-track through the Miami system since, recording 25 saves in 29 chances for Single-A Advanced Jupiter in 2013, which earned him a late-season promotion to Jacksonville, where he converted he only save chance.

Wittgren had 20 saves in 25 chances for the Suns last season, becoming one of only four minor leaguers to notch at least 20 saves in each of the last two years, but faced some adversity by allowing six home runs and posting a 3.55 ERA in 52 games for the Southern League champions.

His first season with New Orleans has been nearly adversity-free, as he successfully converted his first eight save chances before blowing a one-run lead on June 28 at Iowa.

“It’s always tough when you give up the lead and essentially lose it for your team, but as a baseball player in general, you have to have a short memory and if you hold onto things, it’s going to eat you alive in this game,” he said.

Wittgren responded with a perfect ninth the following day and now has 11 saves in 12 chances for the Zephyrs to go along with a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings. The hard-thrower has 34 strikeouts compared to just five walks, and he has allowed the second-fewest number of baserunners per nine innings in the PCL at 8.45.

He said that when the Zephyrs’ starters pitch well – the club leads the PCL with a 3.13 ERA – he gets the itch to get out there and do the same.

“It’s definitely contagious when our starters are going well. You see the starter going out there and competing and that fires up the bullpen. I want to be in the game and who doesn’t want to be a part of a shutout?” Wittgren said.

Conley is slated to start the All-Star Game in Omaha later this month, and if all goes to plan, Wittgren could be in line to save it for his teammate, a proposition that sounds just fine to the closer.

“That would be pretty cool if he got the start and the win and I got the save,” he said.