One year after O’s debut, Steve Wilkerson hoping for return trip

For the Orioles’ versatile Steve Wilkerson, the 2017 season was a very solid one. He was hoping 2018 would find him competing for a job as the club’s utility infielder who can also play some outfield. That didn’t happen and 2018 was a real challenge for him, even though he will always remember it as the year he made his major league debut and checked off a few firsts.

The Orioles selected Wilkerson in the eighth round in 2014 out of Clemson. Mostly a second baseman for his first three years on the farm, Wilkerson became a versatile utility-type player beginning in 2017. The Orioles felt he could make that conversion successfully, and in Wilkerson they saw a speedy switch-hitter who could handle several positions with the glove.

The plan worked and Wilkerson was poised for a solid 2018. But several months before opening day, in December, he was suspended 50 games for a violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Plan. His season would start late, and would later be interrupted by injuries. But in the midst of all that, he saw major league time and made a nice first impression, even with just a few chances.

Wilkerson-Tag-at-Third-Sidebar.jpgHe got the call to majors on June 19, made his debut on defense the next day against the Nationals and made his first big league start the following day, going 0-for-2 at third base in Nats Park against Max Scherzer. The next night, the Orioles were in Atlanta. The Roswell, Ga., native got a key RBI single during Baltimore’s six-run ninth that eventually led to an extra-inning win. So that was on June 22. The next day, Wilkerson was optioned back to the minors.

Four days later, he was called right back. Six days after that, he went on the disabled list with a left oblique strain, which was later determined to be a tear. He would get a September call-up and finish the year playing in the Arizona Fall League. But a season that began late for him sure had a lot going on there, especially in late June and early July.

“Roller coaster is an understatement,” Wilkerson said during a phone interview this week. “Being in Florida for the first 50 games, you know, it was difficult, but I thought I made the most of it. I tried to take care of everything I needed to, day by day, to put myself in a good position when I got to head north.”

In 27 games in the minors, mostly at Triple-A Norfolk, Wilkerson hit .270/.329/.500. In the majors he went 8-for-46, batting .174/.224/.239 with three RBIs.

“When I got to Norfolk (on May 30), I thought I played a good brand of baseball,” he said. “I was there for a couple of weeks before I was called to Washington (for his debut). Felt like I was playing well then. That call-up - it was everything. It was what everyone works for their whole life. I thought I did some things well and could have done some things better. Then, after a brief time there, go down with an injury. That was heartbreaking. Right when I was starting to feel I could do it and have success up there, I got hit with that injury.”

That was definitely frustrating for Wilkerson, who said he tore his left oblique swinging at a pitch that resulted in a foul ball in the fourth inning July 1 against the Angels. On the next pitch, he hit his first career double against Hansel Robles. He stayed in that game until Jonathan Schoop replaced him in the top of the ninth.

Even though he would rejoin Norfolk in August, play for the Orioles in September and for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, Wilkerson never quite felt all the way back.

“And after I came back, I never felt like I hit my whole stride again. Even the fall league, I just didn’t really feel like I had my game all the way back,” Wilkerson said.

In his brief big league time - 16 games and 49 plate appearances - Wilkerson made some nice plays at third base, got that big hit in Atlanta and showed flashes of his plus speed.

“One of my goals was to play hard and show what I can do, and luckily, I was given some opportunities to make a couple of good plays,” Wilkerson said. “And get an RBI and base hit in front of my family and friends in Atlanta. There were definitely a lot of meaningful moments that I’m grateful for.”

Wilkerson hit .282/.372/.338 in the AFL in 20 games, with four doubles and nine RBIs. He played second, short and third for Glendale, and those few weeks gave him peace of mind that his injury issues (he also had a hamstring strain in August) were finally in his rear-view mirror.

“One real positive about Arizona was leaving there completely healthy going into the offseason, and I still feel that way,” said the 27-year-old Wilkerson.

As for his ability to play solid defense at a few different spots, Wilkerson said there is no secret to what helps him there: practice and hard work.

“The challenge is to get the reps at each spot during practice and making sure you’re moving around enough,” he said. “Even if you do have more of an everyday role, to get your reps in and move around in early work and catch some fly balls in BP. Make some throws from positions you might not be playing that night. The utility role is something that I really enjoy. I love defense, playing different positions, and I love the challenges that each position presents. Loving to practice and embracing the work load to be successful at multiple positions is something I enjoy.”

So now Wilkerson is ready to head south and compete for a job, something he could not do last February and March. He said he is grateful that the previous O’s management saw him as someone who might have a big league future. Now he wants to show the new group he can be that, even as spring training begins and the middle infield has a host of candidates for jobs.

“What it will come down to is, come spring training, toe the line, go head to head and compete and, you know, play your best game and control what you can control. Competition is healthy, and I look forward to being one of the guys in the mix,” Wilkerson said.

Coming soon: Wilkerson spent a few days this winter with a swing coach, one who has worked with some big name players.

Babe’s Birthday Bash is Friday: Coming up tomorrow night in Baltimore is another Babe’s Birthday Bash, put on by the Babe Ruth Museum, to celebrate the 124th anniversary of the birth of the great Babe Ruth, the Baltimore-born Bambino. The evening will feature a special presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Tom Stevens (Babe’s grandson) to the museum for permanent display. There will also be programs on the Orioles, the University of Maryland Terrapins, Women in Sports and the Babe. The ticket price includes food, drinks and free-to-play games. There is also a silent auction.

I’ll be there - it’s always a top event on the Baltimore sports calendar - and hope you will be, too. Olympian Kimmie Meissner and others will appear, including New York Times bestselling author of “The Big Fella,” Jane Leavy. Tickets are $65 for non-members. For more info click here.

The event, from 5:30 to 9 p.m., will be held at Game Baltimore, located right behind M&T Bank Stadium at 1400 Warner St. Free parking is available.

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