Wilt takes unusual path to Appleton

More news about: La Roche
Tanner Wilt's baseball career has taken him many places, but now his career has taken La Roche to the D-III World Series.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com

By Austin Walther
for D3baseball.com

GRAND CHUTE, Wis. -- Tanner Wilt was once seemingly headed for the top of the baseball world, a top high school prospect in Pennsylvania, committed to a Division I school, with hopes of being drafted. After a couple of detours, now the 23-year-old has led La Roche to the Division III World Series.

Wilt was Pennsylvania’s top pitcher in the Class of 2011 as he helped lead North Allegheny high school to two championship games. Wilt had the opportunity to appear in a national showcase at Yankee Stadium, but a couple of serious events put his baseball career on hold.

Wilt played for many traveling teams growing up, including the New York Yankees Area Code Team.

“I like to think I had a pretty good high school career,” Wilt said. “I was always a small kid, kind of a late bloomer. I had a great time playing for a big time program in Pittsburgh.”

In the summer before his senior year, he attended a workout in front of hundreds of major league scouts. At the time, Wilt was committed to Coastal Carolina, but he had the attentions of getting drafted. As soon as he started his bullpen session, he was unable to find the catcher’s mitt, sending all five pitches over his glove.

He was at other showcases before including one at Tropicana Field in Tampa and he could tell the nerves were getting to him. The one in New York was the biggest workout he had ever been at.  

“Going into it I was nervous to begin with because I was dealing with this stuff,” Wilt said. “When I got there I didn’t have any good feelings warming up and playing catch before and I was scared to let the ball go.”

At the time he had a sore shoulder, but it was later discovered he had what's been termed for years as "the yips" -- a case of extreme nervousness that causes athletes to lose control of their ability to execute simple tasks. This was similar to what former MLB players Steve Blass and Mark Wohlers had.

Two long summers of throwing as hard as he could was really catching up to him.

“Just being around top guys who are going to be top draft picks,” Wilt said. “I was undersized and I felt like I had to perform at a hundred percent at every event and that’s when it came to a halt.”

As Wilt entered his senior year, he missed out on the first month of the season dealing with a mental hurdle and a shoulder strain and the Tigers missed the playoffs and Wilt said that was the year everything was supposed to come together.

“I was at the point where I could only throw the ball if I threw as hard as I could,” Wilt said. “That took a lot of wear and tear on my shoulder and that’s when the shoulder flared up.”

The original plan of playing for Coastal Carolina came to an end as he de committed when he was dealing with some personal stuff.

Wilt was limited in the regionals because of shoulder tightness but delivered a complete-game win in La Roche's Division III World Series opener vs. UW-Whitewater.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com

“I was spiraling out of control mentally,” Wilt said. “Starting back to Yankee Stadium that was kind of the start of everything with all my issues.

Coastal Carolina starts their freshmen out earlier than most, so he didn’t think he was ready yet.

“It got to the point in the summer where I didn’t think I was in good enough shape to go down there,” Wilt said.

He ultimately ended up taking an offer from the University of Pittsburgh who was interested in him in high school.

“I just thought staying closer to home might be better for me at the time,” Wilt said. “I took a month or so after dealing with some stuff and kind of forget about baseball for a little bit. After a couple weeks went by I was missing it.”

As a freshman for the Panthers, Wilt served as their primary closer in 2012 as he recorded six saves in 16 innings with a 4.08 ERA.

Wilt’s sophomore year was shortened to four games after he started experiencing pain in this throwing arm. He learned he partially tore his UCL in his right elbow. Each time he tried picking up a baseball, the elbow would flare up. He ultimately ended up leaving Pitt when he started to struggle academically and his baseball career was in jeopardy.

Wilt said at the beginning of the season his back starting acting up because he has a minor case of scoliosis. Since that was the case, he was using less of his legs and more of his arm.

“I could just tell something was off,” Wilt said. “I could kind of feel at the start of the season that something was going to happen.”

The injury ended up happening during an early outing against UNC-Asheville. The game went into extra innings so he had been warming up for a while and felt fine.

When he got out there, it was the bottom of the 13th with a runner on third. He threw one pitch and it spiked into the ground, the ball went over the catcher’s shoulder and the runner scored.

Wilt said he wasn’t sure what happened because his bullpen throws felt fine.

“There was just so much adrenaline going on at the time,” Wilt said. “Ten minutes later after everything calmed down, I started getting throbbing pain in my elbow and it was all locked up.”

Looking back at his first two years at Pitt, Wilt said he knew he had a lot of growing up to do.

“I had been through a lot in my life,” Wilt said. “I was a pretty immature kid at the time and I didn’t really handle adversity well and once I got hurt I started struggling in school.”

In 2013 he transferred to Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz. “A change in scenery would probably be good for me,” Wilt said. “I had some family friends out in Tucson.”

Wilt worked in a rehab facility in Pittsburgh and Arizona, but he had a setback in a game before heading down there.

“It just never really felt right,” Wilt said. “It flared up on me again and I was out long tossing one day and could barely get it 100 feet.”

After putting it off for so long Wilt chose to have Tommy John surgery on Jan. 14, 2014.  

During his rehab after surgery, Wilt used the field at La Roche with a former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher who uses the field to give private lessons.

Enter La Roche coach Chase Rowe. In August 2014, Rowe approached Wilt. Rowe has known the Wilt family since they moved to Pittsburgh when Tanner was in ninth grade. Because La Roche opens up their field to summer league teams, Rowe had seen Wilt throw.

“He [Rowe] was just walking around one day and said ‘why don’t you just come (play) here?’,” Wilt said. “I was like, maybe that’s not a bad idea.”

When Rowe was home, he spoke to Wilt’s dad about having him pitch again.

“He’s too good not to pitch,” Rowe said. “We’d love to have him and I felt like my skill set as a coach I thought I would be able to help him to the point he is at right now.”

Wilt chose to attend La Roche as his third school after graduation and Wilt said the transition has been a great one.

“He [Rowe] got to me at the right time,” Wilt said. “It just worked out to where I realized I had to get back into the college circuit to keep my professional dreams alive.”

In his first season with the Redhawks, Wilt went 4-1 with a 1.91 ERA in 47 innings and recorded 63 strikeouts.

Rowe said he has helped Wilt get through the adversity and pain since the elbow surgery.

“He’s a phenomenal work ethic kind of kid,” Rowe said. “We just tried to get him to have trust in his confidence and preparation.”

The 2016 season featured La Roche reaching the championship round for the first time in program history. Wilt has been the ace for the Redhawks’ as he went 9-2 in 85.2 innings, recorded 103 strikeouts in 15 appearances.

Rowe said Wilt has really grown. “Just the way he has matured the last three weeks of the season,” Rowe said. “He’s able to get lost in the competition more and not worry about exterior things like getting drafted or how his arm feels.”

Wilt was named the starter of game one against UW-Whitewater and threw nine innings of baseball while only giving up three earned runs, struck out six and earning the win.  

“It’s been unbelievable,” Wilt said. “It’s just been a great experience and I couldn’t be happier for us.” At 23 years old, Wilt said he still sees a possibility of him pitching at the next level.

“I like to think so,” Wilt said. “I’ve always been battling stuff throughout my career so we’ll just see what happens. I just left everything out there yesterday.”