Though he lacks imposing size, Wellbrock becomes consistent closer
Eleven times he trotted out of the bullpen in left field and calmly put the game away, making it look almost mundane to the crowd. However, senior closer Chase Wellbrock’s specialized role often changes with the situation, even if the results don’t. Last season his craft sometimes saw him on the mound for one inning and other times three. Though he performed well, Wellbrock doesn’t fit the typical mold of a closer.
Wellbrock came to UH as a starter but quickly found himself as the go-to fireman out of the bullpen. His 11 saves were complemented by the fact he held opposing batters to .247 batting average, statistics good enough to put him in the top five of relievers for Conference USA. When the Cougars take the field on Friday for their season opener, the 5-foot-10 Wellbrock is expected to be a consistent presence.
“I like the feeling of having the pressure on and having the game on my shoulders,” Wellbrock said. “You learn that as you play the game over time. … If something bad happens, you have to let it roll off your shoulders, because tomorrow is another game.”
Closers are a special breed. Even at the college level, they are known for mastering quirky pitches or for unique physical builds that bend toward hulking with blazing fastballs or tall and skinny with carefully crafted breaking balls. Wellbrock does not fall into either category. He’s smaller, but his battery mate thinks it’s an advantage.
“I guess he doesn’t fit the stereotype, but that might be deceiving to teams that look at him. He kind of uses that to his advantage,” said senior catcher Caleb Barker. “I don’t think people expect a whole lot out of him when you see his stuff and when you see him warming up coming into an inning. I think the other team thinks they have a better chance than they do. He does a really good job of locating and mixing his pitches while throwing strikes. He’s not the big guy who throws hard, but he’s been nails for us out of the pen.”
In lieu of a blistering fastball, Wellbrock makes use of control and movement on his pitches. This approach to pitching was on display when UH won a game with a bases-loaded strikeout against Texas A&M at the Astros College Classic at Minute Maid Park last season.
For Wellbrock, his success at adapting to the role of closer is one that fulfills one of the role’s most important tasks: making the starters feel comfortable.
“I don’t have a worry in the world when we have Wellbrock out there,” said junior pitcher Aaron Garza. “He’s a big guy for us. He gets after the hitters, and you always have that little edge with Wellbrock coming into the game.”
Head coach Todd Whitting, who is looking at a bullpen that still has a few questions as far as experience and game-time performance go, views Wellbrock as a valued asset, as a veteran presence and influence goes far through the course of the long season.
“He’s the anchor of the staff,” Whitting said. “He’s a veteran guy and kind of the leader of that pitching staff. I think (the newcomers to the staff) look to him and watch how he works and watch how his mentality is during the game. He’s a workman type guy. I think they all kind of look to him.”
The high visibility of his role, coupled with the high-stakes nature, inspires what some would consider an almost contradictory feeling about his job.
“I love the pressure. I kind of think I thrive on it a little bit,” Wellbrock said. “I love when the coach puts the game into my hands, when he comes out there and hands me the ball. The reason I’m confident about that is I have the guys behind me who are going to make the plays.”