Wilkie notched nine holds and eight saves with a 2.45 ERA and .228 batting average against in 53 games, including one start, last season for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs.
In five minor league seasons, the 26-year-old has 28 holds, 31 saves and a 2.91 ERA in 210 games. Signed as a non-drafted free agent in June 2006, he is a two-time minor league All-Star.
Wilkie was thrilled to find out he had been invited to Viera, Fla., where the Nationals hold spring training.
“It is great,” Wilkie said. “I have been working so hard all these years to get to this point. It is always good when the front office calls you with news like this, because my last two seasons didn’t end the way I wanted them to. Last season, I was hoping for the September call-up. I gave up six runs in the last (Syracuse) game, so it came to a bitter end.”
Wilkie said he received encouragement from Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty following the season. “Cat gave me good words of inspiration and told me I pitched well. That meant a lot,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie continued his season pitching for Leones del Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he went 2-2 with one hold and a 3.20 ERA in 18 relief appearances.
He said pitching in Venezuela before crowds of 25,000 to 30,000 was “probably the most awesome experience of my baseball life. That was very interesting. I pitched really well and gained a lot of experience on how to handle the noise, the crowds and the talent in the Venezuelan league.”
Wilkie did not give up a run in 10 innings of playoff appearances and only one run in all of December. After one bad outing early on, he settled down and maintained his consistency the rest of the season. The team reached the final game of the semifinals.
So now that he has received an invitation to spring training with the Nationals, Wilkie is not going to put any undue pressure on himself.
“It gets mentally wearing if you let it bother you,” he said. “It can weigh you down. This year, I have no expectations. I wish I could predict the future, but I am not worried. I know I can be a big league pitcher. I am a way better pitcher than I was last year.”
Wilkie said the biggest key was pitching against the top talent in Venezuela. That gave him the mental confidence that he could pitch at the big league level.
“I know Spanish, so I was able to get in and interact with the native Venezuelans,” Wilkie said. “They showed me how to dance, where to go. I got to live like one of the natives, not like a tourist. The managers got to know me very well, so they kept me longer than usual, probably two and a half to three months, instead of sending me home.”
Wilkie said his arm did not get overburdened by pitching into a second season.
“It was about the same schedule I had in Syracuse,” Wilkie said. “I would pitch maybe two innings and then have two or three days off. Our bullpen was really good so, nobody got overworked.”
I caught up with Wilkie on the day when he visited a guitar shop. He was trading in his old Martin for a Taylor guitar. He also picked up a ukulele.
Wilkie studied music while in school and has gotten pretty adept at the guitar over the years. So if you hear a version of “Ukulele Lady” being played soon on a Florida beach, there is a chance it just might be Wilkie strumming the chords.