NEW YORK -- It was the spring of 2009 that Nolan Ryan and C.J. Wilson had The Talk. The Rangers were gearing up for the upcoming season in Surprise, Ariz., and Wilson, then a restless reliever at a crossroads, walked into the office of the Hall of Fame pitcher and team president for a chat. "I remember asking C.J., 'So what is it you want to do in baseball?" Ryan recalled earlier this year. "'What is it do you think you're best at?' He said, 'I want to be a starter.' I asked him, 'Do you think you can pitch seven, eight innings?' And he said he absolutely could. Well, who was I to argue with him? He has three pitches. He pitches to both sides of the plate. And he's a tough competitor."
Ryan went on, "So I said to him, 'I'll tell you this, C.J. I think you're talented. You've got the stuff. And if you think you can start, well, it's not going to happen this year, but we'll take you to spring training next year and we'll give you an opportunity to start. And if you pitch well enough to earn a spot, it's yours.'" Ryan shrugged. "And that's exactly what he did."
C.J. Wilson has been a closer, a setup man and a starter. He is an aspiring novelist, a race car driver, a prolific Tweeter and a Taoist. On Wednesday at Yankee Stadium, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound left-hander from Newport Beach, Calif., will have a chance to be something else: a Yankee killer. All eyes will be on the converted reliever in Game 5 of the ALCS in New York, as he takes the mound with a chance to slam the door on the defending champs and send Texas to its first Fall Classic.
"We have a lot of confidence in C.J.," said Rangers third baseman Michael Young after Texas' 10-3 Game 4 whitewashing put them on the brink. "He's come up huge for us in big moments all year. It seems like he kind of eats up these big moments."
The 2010 Rangers are bursting with great stories: Josh Hamilton's MVP season, the redemption of manager Ron Washington, Vladimir Guerrero's comeback, the unexpected emergence of Japanese import Colby Lewis. Wilson's story is no less impressive.
At 29, in his sixth major league season, he did something rare and rather remarkable: he reinvented himself as a starter. Wilson went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA during the regular season and has been rolling since the All-Star break, having cut down his walk rate to win nine of his last 12 starts. Before Cliff Lee parachuted in from Seattle in July, Wilson was the rock in an injury-plagued and inconsistent Rangers rotation. You could argue that he has been Texas' most important pitcher this season. "He was a constant all year," says Young.
Yes, it has been Lee's October, but Wilson, one of baseball's most underrated pitchers, has been nearly lights out for the Rangers too. He shut down the Rays in Game 2 of the ALDS and he outpitched CC Sabathia and shut down the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALCS (before the Texas bullpen's spectacular implosion). He doesn't throw particularly hard -- his fastball tops out in the low 90s -- but as the Yankees found out in Game 1, he can throw any of five pitches with two strikes. "Everyone talks about Cliff Lee," Tampa Bays' Carl Crawford noted before his team was shut out for 6 1/3 innings against Wilson in the ALDS, "but Wilson is really tough too. He throws harder. He commands his pitches. He's not much more fun to face."
With their team on life support, the Yankee Stadium faithful will be loud on Wednesday. Sabathia, New York's $161 million ace, will be on the mound. But Wilson --- "certainly one guy that doesn't lack confidence," Washington says --- won't be fazed. When he was a closer, Wilson always seemed to be in what Washington calls "destroying mode." Said the Rangers' skipper, "Since he's become a starter, he's become a better person to be around. And that's only because when he was in the bullpen as a closer, he was always in a destroying mode. Now that he's a starter, he has to destroy when he has to get through innings. And because he was a closer, he knows how to do that."
Wilson often thinks back to The Talk -- the day that everything began to change for him. "It can be really intimidating to go up to a living legend and ask him what he thinks about what you're doing," he says. "But it turned into a one-and-a-half hour conversation in his office." At the time he was a frustrated major league baseball player who "saw the writing on the wall that I'd never be a closer here. And setup guys don't have long careers. That's what I told Nolan. And he was open to listening to me. He liked my repertoire, he liked that I could do a bunch of different things with the ball, that I was a ground ball pitcher, was good at throwing inside, and I wasn't scared of certain types of hitters."
Added Wilson, "Nolan was the first guy that was in my corner with me being a starting pitcher. He's a big, big reason why I'm in the rotation."
And a big reason why the converted reliever will be on the mound at Yankee Stadium for the biggest moment in Texas Rangers history. Nolan Ryan will be there in his front-row seat to watch his great experiment on the mound. It has been a long road for Wilson. It has been a long road for the Rangers. But the time may have come for the long-suffering franchise. And the time certainly has come for C.J. Wilson.