Plastic wrap and ice bound senior Travis Wendte’s pitching arm after he allowed only two hits during a career-high 4.1 innings against Kansas State on Saturday. He hadn’t spent nearly that long on the mound since his freshman year when he pitched four innings against Arkansas State.
The game, an important matchup that Missouri won 9-5, exhibited Wendte (1-1) returning to his freshman form. He began his career at MU with acclaim, but a rotator cuff surgery interrupted his career, confining him to the bench for the 2004 season.
During his freshman season, Wendte was one of the Big 12 Conference leaders in appearances and saves, and Collegiate Baseball named him a first-team relief pitcher on the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team.
The next season, Wendte built on his success with eight saves but then became injured and the surgery followed.
“It was tough. I’ve put that in my past now, but it’s taken a while for me to get back to full strength, a lot of innings last year, and I’ve been pitching a lot this year,” Wendte said.
Meanwhile, during his return to form last season, MU continued strengthening a bullpen that contributed to the team’s 3.17 ERA. Pitching coach Tony Vitello said Wendte has helped the staff even more this year.
“He’s been working his way back, but he’s always been a solid guy for us and with this particular team,” Vitello said. “He’s in a position where we basically have three closers with Taylor (Parker), Travis and David Cales, We can go to Travis at any point and be confident with him.”
Vitello, an MU alumnus, played his final season with the Tigers during Wendte’s first season on the team. Vitello started coaching for Missouri after he graduated, so he’s been both Wendte’s teammate and coach.
After five seasons, Vitello still remembers his first impression of Wendte.
“My first impression, in the fall (of 2001), was that this guy’s not that good, but he keeps getting guys out,” Vitello said. “Well, in reality, he is that good, and a lot of it has to do with his work ethic. You’re never going to see a more composed individual out on the mound.
“He could be in the heat of the fire and he’s going to be the same guy that he is at practice.”
Vitello said Wendte’s composure Saturday provided a valuable lesson to freshmen pitchers David Cales, who relieved Friday and Sunday, and Aaron Crow, who started Saturday.
Coach Tim Jamieson sent Wendte in during the fourth inning expecting a temporary role, but after the Tigers jumped on Kansas State, he didn’t see any reason to relieve the senior until the eighth inning. Wendte simply performed beyond expectations.
“It just happened today,” Jamieson said. “It wasn’t really intended to be a long-relief role — your starter only goes into the the fourth inning, and you don’t have (Max) Scherzer or (Stephan) Holst available. You’re limited a little bit on what you can do, so you want a guy that can settle the game down.
“We had no expectations of him going that long, but he got better and better as he went so we kept putting him back out there.”
Wendte entered a 4-4 game with one out and runners on first and third. Kansas State’s Brandon Farr hit an RBI single that gave the Wildcats the lead for the second time.
“I felt like I loosened up the more I was out there and it seemed like I was throwing a little better and a little more confident,” Wendte said. “At the beginning, when I got in, it felt like I tensed up a little and I was having a little trouble hitting my spots, but fortunately, I did loosen up and I feel like I did a better job as I went.”
Jamieson said he was a little worried during Wendte’s first few innings on the mound but that his worries were quickly relieved.
“His last three innings were just tremendous,” Jamieson said. “He was throwing velocity-wise as hard as he’s probably thrown since his sophomore year and locating, and was essentially unhittable. He did a tremendous job against a team that was swinging the bats really well until he came in.”
Wendte has tried to return to that form since 2002. In that time, his injured arm became an afterthought.
“Nothing bothers me with my arm any more. It was an obstacle,” he said, “but I feel that I’ve overcome that.”