Kyle Wellman was the subject of a phone call between two head coaches in collegiate summer baseball leagues. One needed an extra arm in Ontario, Canada, and the other possessed just that in Scottsdale.
Wellman, a former standout pitcher at Verrado High School, authored some impressive numbers for Wilson Sandlot, a team in the Arizona Collegiate Wood Bat League, earlier in the summer. Then, the head coach from the Thunder Bay Border Cats, an Ontario-based team in the Northwoods League that desperately needed pitchers, casually phoned the Sandlot’s skipper.
“Do you guys have anybody who can come throw for us?” Thunder Bay’s manager wondered. “We’re looking for pitchers as the summer progresses and guys go home or reach their innings limit.”
There was a guy he had in mind, him being a crafty, left-handed, Litchfield Park native, who was now overachieving with the Sandlot.
The Sandlot head coach briefed Wellman on this conversation, telling the southpaw to be on the lookout for a message from the Thunder Bay Cats in the coming days.
No time was wasted, and soon he was on a flight to join the Border Cats for a night game in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
“I talked to the coach and he was like, ‘We’re pretty short-handed,’” Wellman said. “So, I booked a flight that night and left three nights later.”
The Northwoods League is “the proven leader in the development of elite college baseball players,” per its website. Many current and former Major League Baseball players are alums of this league, including Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and World Series champions Chris Sale and Ben Zobrist.
Wellman was aware of the league’s rich history before he joined the Border Cats. What he hadn’t yet learned was how closely mirrored it was to the daily grind of professional baseball.
“We were based out of Thunder Bay in Ontario, but I only spent four days in Thunder Bay,” he said. “I flew to St. Cloud, and they picked me up at the airport. I threw my stuff in the bus and we hit the road.
“It was, you play, you get done, you spend the night at a hotel and leave the next morning. We were the only team out of Canada, so we would have days where we would leave at 5 in the morning, get off the bus, play, get back on the bus and go to a hotel for the night. Then, the bus leaves at 7 and we’d drive to the next game.”
In the two weeks he was there, Thunder Bay had only one off-day. The entire season calls for 70 games in a 75-day window.
Wellman, a sophomore at Division III Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, made three starts for the Border Cats, logging 13 innings over nine earned runs and 10 strikeouts. In his freshman season at Hendrix, he appeared in 20 games, totaling 30.1 IP, 25 punch-outs and 18 walks.
Minus his first outing with the Warriors, in which he yielded six earned runs, Wellman sported a 3.40 ERA last season.
He was a catalyst his senior year at Verrado, helping the Vipers reach the 5A state championship game for the first time in school history. He went 6-1 and had a 2.19 ERA en route to being named Verrado’s Most Valuable Player.
He struggled with Thunder Bay, he humbly professed, but facing hitters who spanned from some of the top baseball schools across the country provided an incredible learning experience.
Wellman, along with another Hendrix teammate, became the first ever from their school to play in the Northwoods League.
“As far as matching up against guys, I’ve never been extremely overpowering, so I had to fine-tune the fact that I’m not going to attack guys the same way I would when I was in high school.
“It’s a different mindset. You have to throw a ton of changeups, a ton of breaking balls and you have to throw it for a strike. And if you don’t throw it for a strike, they’re not going to swing.”
Along with the ultracompetitive experience that the Northwoods League provides, Wellman was also introduced to another facet that mimics professional baseball — rowdy crowds, and hecklers, too.
“There were 3,000 people there at our last game,” he said.
Games are played at former minor league stadiums, and the league functions as if it’s still host to minor league teams. They host on-field activities for the crowd between innings. They do giveaways and promotional nights. Players are even asked by fans for autographs and pictures.
“And every day, you were getting heckled,” he laughed.
Moments before his last start in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Wellman was warming up in the bullpen before fans who stood some 10 to 15 feet away. The velocity of his fastball, or lack thereof, actually, prompted one fan to begin to heckle him.
“Every pitch I’d throw, he’d say, ‘65 (mph), 65, 65.’ It got to the point where you can’t tune that out. I finally looked at him and said, ‘You’re probably right.’ We both started laughing and he didn’t do it anymore.”
What he lacks in velocity, he makes up for in his off-speed craft, boasting a wicked curveball that buckled knees in the Northwoods League.
Those familiar with Wellman are aware of his fiery competitiveness, his penchant to pump his fist after a strikeout or stare down the opposing dugout after a clean, one-two-three inning. While that emotion is still very much alive and well, he said he has learned how to dial that back a tad, largely in part to his time in this league.
“I still get fired up, that’s just my personality. You just get to this point where you’re pitching against top-notch competition and you’re not going to strike a guy out in the first inning and pump your first and yell because in the second inning, the next batter could very easily hit one 390 down the line.
“You can’t be doing that out there when everybody on their team is fully capable of embarrassing you the next pitch. It’s humbling.”
And that he even tasted some success — in an August 4 start he spun seven innings of one-run ball to record a win — sparked confidence that he has the stuff to compete against some of college baseball’s best.
He’s tucked the lessons he learned with Thunder Bay in his back pocket, planning to revisit them during his sophomore season at Hendrix.
“I want to win a national championship (at Hendrix). And secondly, I just want to never stop learning. I love baseball. My biggest fear is the last day I ever play ball. If I can keep getting better and better, then who knows where that’s going to take me?”