STILLWATER — Vince Wheeland understands and embraces his role on the Oklahoma State pitching staff.
At all times.
That's literally Wheeland's job description, as the pitching equivalent of a utility man — utility pitcher? — answering every conceivable call: spot starter, long reliever, short reliever and closer. And not simply as some mop-up guy.
As the Cowboys' go-to guy.
“I like being the guy they can count on,” said Wheeland. “It's whatever they want me to do. I'll go out there and do it.”
And get it done.
A junior from Turlock, Calif., Wheeland stands 8-0 with a save, tied for the Big 12 lead in wins and carrying a 1.64 earned run average that ranks fourth in the conference. In a year when OSU has often pieced together its pitching plan due to injuries, he's reliably completed the puzzle, appearing in 20 of the Cowboys' 39 games and playing a key role in 14 of the team's 28 wins.
“He's our most valuable guy. Period,” said OSU pitching coach Rob Walton. “He's our most valuable pitcher.”
And he'll surely be needed this weekend, when the Cowboys head to the TD Ameritrade Classic in Omaha, taking on Rutgers, Creighton and Nebraska (twice) in series of games that could bolster their NCAA Tournament chances.
Wheeland doesn't so much wow with his stuff as his results. And his mentality.
His greatest asset may be a bulldog approach that works for him on even the shakiest of days, like Saturday, when he held Kansas State scoreless for the final 2 2/3 innings while the Cowboys rallied for a 7-6 win.
“Vinnie's just a stopper,” said OSU center fielder Saulyer Saxon. “He's going to go out there and compete every day. Some days he doesn't have his best stuff, but he'll throw it up there 82 and get people out.
“We're like, ‘How does he do it?' He just competes. He just finds a way. And it's awesome. As soon as he steps on the mound, everybody's energy goes up. Everybody gets excited and knows that he's going to go up there and give you his best. And we have confidence that it's going to be enough.”
Most of the time, Wheeland's stuff is plenty good. When on, his fastball runs 87-90 mph and his slider can be an out pitch, capable of putting hitters away or inducing ground balls for double plays.
More than anything, Wheeland trusts the stuff he has.
“I hit my spots, let my defense work behind me,” he said. “I've got a bunch of good gloves out there, which helps a lot. You can trust your fastball and your other players, knowing they'll be there.
“When I'm not feeling the greatest, I work down, let my movement work and let my guys work behind me. And when I feel better, I'll do the same thing, but have a little better location and command.”
Walton lists three key ingredients to Wheeland's success: toughness, competitiveness and a willingness to be coached.
That, Walton said, is how Wheeland continues to thrive, on his good days and not-so-good days.
“That's a credit to the kid and his ability to compete,” Walton said. “He doesn't let his stuff get in the way of his thoughts. A lot of times, what pitchers do is their imagination kills them. ‘Well, I don't have my best fastball. I don't have my best curveball.' So immediately the thought is, ‘I'm going to get hit.'
“It doesn't matter to Vinnie. He just thinks, ‘I'm going to make sure I keep the ball down.' He controls what he can control.”
What he can't control is when or how he's used.
Wheeland has made one start, working a season-long of six innings, and gone as many as four innings five times. So he's started games, bridged games and finished games.
Overall, he's thrown 55 innings, striking out 50 and walking just 10. And he's kept damage to a minimum, allowing but four extra-base hits and no home runs.
“He's clutch,” said utility man Trey Whaley. “Vinnie, we always know when he's on the mound that we're in good hands.”