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03/24/11 4:00 PM ET

From bartending to bigs, Wilhelmsen thriving

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It would be inaccurate to say Mariners bullpen contender Tom Wilhelmsen never threw a ball between the day he walked away from the game in 2004 and his return in 2009.

He did, after all, spend two years as an outfielder. For a softball team. In a co-ed beer league with a group of women that included his future wife.

No, Wilhelmsen is definitely not your typical pitching prospect. While his peers were working their way up through the farm system, he was pouring beers as a bartender at The Hut in Tucson, Ariz.

After quitting the Brewers organization following two suspensions for drug use, he didn't pitch at all again until '09. Wilhelmsen not only took a different path to where he's at now, he used a different mode of transportation.

Now back in the game at age 27 and making a run at a bullpen spot for the Mariners, Wilhelmsen pedals to the club's training complex several miles each day on a bicycle.

"I ride whenever I can," the free-spirited reliever said. "Save the earth, save my body, save some money."

The Mariners would love it if Wilhelmsen someday saves baseball games, as well. He's still a ways from that point, just getting his legs under him after a dominating season in Class A last year.

He spent time in a treatment facility during his absence from baseball. He says now he just needed to grow up. And while he spends no time or energy looking back, he feels an added appreciation for his second chance at baseball.

"I've never thought about, 'I'm here now, where would I have been five years ago?'" Wilhelmsen said. "Because I probably wouldn't have even been around ball at this point if I was going about the things I was and how I was doing it. I needed the time away, needed to understand and needed to know responsibility and work ethic and all those things.

"Everyone learns and gets it at a different time in their life. Was mine later than others? I don't know. I know my life, and that's what I go by."

By any standard, his life seems pretty good now. He's a bright baseball prospect once again. He's married to his high school girlfriend, Cassie, who supported him when he was out of work by bartending. Cassie gave him the motivation to return to the game two years ago.

"There were a number of things [that sparked his comeback], but the big thing was realizing I wanted to ask her to marry me," Wilhemsen said. "That's when I started getting some things together and thinking about my future. I wanted more for myself. I didn't go to college, I don't have a degree, I didn't know what I could get myself into. I played baseball, so let's try that again and give that a legitimate shot. And so far, so good."

Armed with a fastball in the upper 90s and an athletic 6-foot-6 frame, Wilhelmsen has done well in his first Major League camp. Though still an outside shot to make the team, he's clearly knocking on a door he'd seemingly slammed shut himself seven years ago.

In his most recent Cactus League outing on Tuesday, he struck out the side against the White Sox, lowering his spring ERA to 2.57 and raising more eyebrows among those now wondering if he might actually land a spot on the rebuilding Mariners roster.

"I didn't expect to be in big league camp my second year back, but I did have high goals," he said. "Not this high, but I'm happy I was wrong."

In his previous outing on Saturday, he found himself on the mound in the third and fourth innings against a power-laden Texas Rangers lineup, facing Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, et al. He gave up one run in two innings of work and learned more about himself.

"My mind was pretty clear at the time, but afterward it was like, 'Holy lineup!'" he said with a laugh. "You never like to give up runs, but against those guys, they taught me something. So it was good.

"This is a big jump. You learn you can't throw the same thing to big leaguers that you can to 'A' batters. I have to locate my fastball better and show offspeed earlier in the count, preferably for a strike, so they know I can do it, just to show them I've got something besides the fastball they seem to be sitting on."

He's got a lot still to learn, but there's something intriguing about this young man. And the Mariners are giving him a good look.

"He's been throwing the ball well," manager Eric Wedge said. "Like a lot of our guys, we want him to work ahead and stay ahead better. But he has a live arm and his secondary stuff is real good. I've been very impressed with him."

Not bad for a guy who has never pitched above Class A.

"It's quite a story," said Wedge. "You wouldn't know it by the way he carries himself and the stuff you see. You have to like the way he carries himself out there, just his presence."

Wilhelmsen could be a storybook tale, a made-for-TV movie if he pulls it off. The opening scene could be of him playing co-ed softball, trying in vain to teach his future wife how to throw off the correct foot. He notes with mock pride that his squad "with a bunch of girls who had never played before" wound up in second place in their league in their second season.

How high level was this beer league competition?

"It wasn't the Schlitz league," he said with a grin. "It was maybe the Budweiser league, I guess."

Now he's facing Major League hitters, soaking up the moment instead of spilled beer at the bar. It might seem a long way from The Hut, but Wilhelmsen remains the same guy. He's an engaging sort, a free thinker with an easy laugh.

But he is definitely focused on grabbing hold of his old baseball dream this time and giving it his best shot, a pursuit he appreciates far more now that he's older and more ready to seize the opportunity.

"Without a doubt," he said. "Going about it the right way on and off the field has definitely made it easier on my body and my mind and what I want to do in the future. Having the success I had last year makes me appreciate the game and the work you have to put into it. Understanding that is a huge deal.

"They've given me plenty of opportunity to show my stuff here. I'm learning. I'm picking up on things. You can't ask for much more than that."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.