LAKELAND — Wes Etheridge does not have the typical build of a dominating closer. He is long and lean at 6 feet 1, 185 pounds. And he has one true pitch in his arsenal, a fastball that isn't that fast (87 mph on his best day).
But the Dunedin Blue Jays right-hander flummoxes hitters by making his fastball sink at the end, the ball often eluding the bat when it is flying forward. A lot of his pitches result in infield dribblers. Just one has flown out of the park this season.
"I just pitch, and I pray," Etheridge said. "I basically put my trust in God and have faith that I'm going to get the batter out."
Faith has guided Etheridge along his unlikely path to baseball prominence: from a 12th-round draft pick of the Brewers in 2007 to becoming a youth pastor to becoming one of the top closers in the minor leagues.
This season Etheridge is 30-for-30 in save opportunities and not only leads the Class A Florida State League in saves but all minor-league baseball. He is one save shy of the Dunedin season record and eight of the FSL record.
In 41 relief appearances overall, he is 1-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 36 strikeouts over 422/3 innings.
"I was nervous at first getting back into baseball," Etheridge said. "But as I've stepped back and looked at it, God has really put me in a perfect position."
Etheridge did not feel that way during his first experience in professional baseball. Midway through his second season in the Brewers organization, Etheridge fractured an ankle. Rehabilitation gave him time to reflect on his career path.
He decided he was called upon to do something else. So in 2008 he retired to become a youth pastor.
"I was almost happy that the injury happened," said Etheridge, who pitched collegiately at Cal Irvine. "My head wasn't really into the game. I never gave the Brewers my full effort, and I have some regrets about that because it wasn't fair to them."
In 2009, Etheridge enrolled at Liberty University, a Christian school based in Lynchburg, Va., and took online courses. But that didn't give him enough personal experience. So he took classes at the Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, Calif. He also started a youth group.
But that still wasn't enough to keep him satisfied.
"I didn't feel like the youth group was progressing," Etheridge said. "My career was not moving forward. It was just stagnant."
Then Etheridge received a phone call from his friend Dan Millwee.
"Wesley wasn't getting what he needed being a youth pastor," Millwee said. "He needed a purpose in life. I told him he needed to be out there with what he knew. He really needed to go back to baseball. That is what God wanted for him."
Etheridge needed more convincing. He talked to his mother, Wendi, who was never fond of the baseball lifestyle.
The family grew up with the game. Wes started playing at 4. His father, also named Wes, has been a youth coach for more than 30 years. There were long road trips, missed meals and time away from each other.
"Our lives have constantly revolved around baseball," Wendi said.
"But Wes has always had a love for the game. That's just what he knows. God gave him a second chance to make a career in baseball. And how many people really get a second chance in baseball, especially one like his?"
The Brewers still held Etheridge's rights, so he reported to spring training last year. He was cut on the final day.
Then Blue Jays scout Steve Springer got Etheridge a tryout with Maui (Hawaii) of the independent Golden Baseball League.
"They said they didn't have much money (in Maui)," Etheridge said. "But I thought it was great. I would have gone there for free. Still, I didn't know if I was going to make the team."
Etheridge not only made the team, he thrived. He went 10-0 with a 1.76 ERA in 15 starts. He continued to pitch well in the Venezuelan winter league.
The Blue Jays were impressed enough to invite him to spring training. They eventually signed him to a minor-league contract and converted him into a closer.
"I just have a different fire this time around," Etheridge said. "I'm enjoying everything about being a baseball player and pitching. I love the bus rides, being on the field all the time, all the things that can make it a hard lifestyle."
At 26, Etheridge is older than all but one of his teammates. And his ascension in the organization could be delayed because of a logjam of closers in the Blue Jays' system.
For now, that doesn't matter to Etheridge.
"A lot of guys get wrapped up in that stuff," he said. "There's still stuff I can work on at this level. Besides, the Blue Jays gave me a chance. They are the only team that came to me. I have to be happy.
"It truly has been a blessed season."
Bob Putnam can be reached at [email protected]