Randy Wolf's resolve pays off with big league start

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Randy Wolf didn’t expect anything less from his former catcher and new manager Brad Ausmus.

“I think his first words to me when he called were, ‘Don’t (mess) this up,’” said Wolf, the veteran left-hander the Tigers acquired from Toronto on Friday. “You know Brad, there’s no belt line when it comes to taking shots.”

Wolf will turn 39 years old on Saturday. Three years ago on his birthday he was released by the Milwaukee Brewers. He will celebrate his birthday this year by starting for the Tigers against the Rangers.

In some ways, it’s the birthday present he’s spent the past three years working toward. Because after 15 big league seasons, 372 starts, 2,293.2 innings, 133 wins, 1,786 strikeouts and two Tommy John surgeries, Wolf didn’t believe his baseball career was over.

The hard part was convincing another major league team of that.

“The Blue Jays were the only team that gave me any kind of opportunity in the offseason,” Wolf said. “I was kind of left by the wayside and I was pretty much going to going to retire.”

But a funny thing happened — his arm came around. He missed the 2013 season after the second Tommy John surgery and pitched in only six games for the Marlins in 2014. But when he started to work out in the winter of 2014, he was throwing the ball like it was 2009. 

“I felt incredible and I hadn’t felt that way in a long time,” he said. “It was hard for me to walk away when I knew I felt that way. I’ve always wanted to live in a way that when I look back when I am 50 years old, I don’t have any regrets. 

“I had to give it one more try and see what I have in the tank.”

He couldn’t even get teams to come watch him throw, which had to sting. And when finally the Blue Jays came around, they made it clear that he would be pitching at Triple A Buffalo with no guarantees of making it to the big club.

“It was humbling,” he said. “It was a very humbling experience.”

But he was undeterred. As 11 different pitchers made their way up to the Blue Jays active roster — including Tigers rookies Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, who were acquired in the David Price trade — Wolf kept pitching stellar baseball in Triple A — 9-2, 2.58 ERA. 

“The most impressive thing is with all his big league experience and time, he was still willing to put in the time in the minor leagues to try and make it back,” Ausmus said. “He played for quite a while and he made plenty of money. But that speaks to his character and how much he loves the game of baseball.”

To say he was itching to get to the big leagues is an understatement.

“I think I developed a rash,” he joked.

He approached Blue Jays management just days before the trade and told them he was going to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract if he wasn’t going to be promoted soon.

Then, as he was walking his dog Friday afternoon, he got the call that he was going to Detroit.

“It’s hard to say it was a long time coming because I feel like nothing is given to you,” Wolf said. “And if I say it was a long time coming, then it was an expectation. But I am definitely thankful for the opportunity. 

“I know I’ve been throwing the ball well. To get this opportunity is something I worked hard for. Now I just want to keep that going and help the Tigers.”

He is still able to command a fastball anywhere from 88 to 91 mph. He still can buckle knees with a slow breaking ball. But he’s added a cutter to his repertoire, which has neutralized right-handed hitters and his change-up, always a spotty pitch for him, has been more reliable.

“When you’ve pitched as long as he has and you evolve as a pitcher, you learn different ways to get hitters out,” Ausmus said. “You may no longer have the ability to out-stuff hitters, but you might have the ability to outsmart hitters.”

There were those that told him he was nuts for having the second Tommy John surgery at age 36. There were those that thought he was wasting his time by playing in Triple-A again. He followed his heart.

“If it didn’t work out, I felt at that point like, well, I had a good career, I played for a long time and I’d be happy with that,” he said. “But if I didn’t at least try, then I might look back and have some regrets.”