Getting By On a Wing and a Prayer
College Baseball: Blake Wichert Lands D-II Opportunity During Summer Pitching for SoCal Catch
By Jordan Nailon
Listed generously at 5’8” on most rosters, Blake Wichert doesn’t cast the same sort of shadow as a prototypical college pitcher. It is a cold hard fact that the 2016 graduate of W.F. West is keenly aware of.
Time and time again, his stature has appeared to be an insurmountable impediment for the opportunities he has sought to attain on the baseball diamond. The simple reality is that coaches aren’t lining up to recruit common right-handed pitchers touting only average height and the heart of a martyr on their resume.
But Wichert, a young man powered by conviction and faith, has never allowed doubters and detractors along the way to foil his pursuit of a place inside the gates of college baseball.
This summer, after two seasons grinding on the California junior college circuit, Wichert finds himself anchoring a relief spot in the bullpen for the So. Cal. Catch in the California Collegiate League. What’s more, on Monday, Wichert signed on to play his next two college seasons with the Division II Southern Nazarene University Storm on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
On his player profile page for the Catch, the team lists Wichert’s favorite gospel passage – Matthew 19:26:
“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”
It is that unwavering belief in a power bigger than himself that has carried Wichert along on his dogged quest to improve himself and prove the naysayers wrong.
As a player at W.F. West, Wichert found himself backlogged behind other talented, and taller pitchers, who gobbled up the vast majority of available innings in the high school season. After beginning his high school summer ball experience in the local legion program, Wichert later opted to play with Showtime Baseball out of Vancouver in an attempt to boost his profile and bonafides on the mound. After his senior year, Wichert switched things up again and wound up anchoring the pitching staff for Rural Baseball Inc. in back to back summers.
After his first summer with RBI, Wichert headed to California and wound up on the roster at Ventura College just north of Los Angeles. Then, following a frustrating freshman season with limited mound time, Wichert again found himself on the move after his head coach resigned unexpectedly.
Luckily for Wichert, the former head coach at Ventura was good friends with the head coach at nearby Moorpark College and passed along a solid recommendation for the plucky right-hander on his way out the dugout door.
“He wanted me to play for a good guy so he sent me over there,” said Wichert. “I talked to Moorpark out of high school and I just ended up choosing Ventura instead.”
This year, Wichert was again used sparingly out of the bullpen and as the season wound down, he wondered where his next opportunity might come from, or if he’d reached the end of his line in the game of baseball. As time became scarce and Wichert grew ever more anxious, he again found himself the beneficiary of good contacts and an opportunity that seemed to fall like manna from the sky.
One of Wichert’s teammates at Moorpark College had played for the So. Cal. Catch in the summer of 2017 and suggested that he might enjoy the unique environment the team offers as the only member of the California Collegiate League with a stated emphasis on cultivating a proactive Christian culture.
According to the team website the Catch were formed in 2013 with a focus “on discipling top collegiate baseball players.” The team not only plays a competitive schedule of more than 40 games against collegiate talent but also holds daily team chapels with built-in opportunities to participate in religious retreats, baseball camps, and missions to Mexico. The team’s unique name is even derived from biblical teachings found in Luke 5:10-11 where Jesus convinces a fleet of fishermen to give up their piscatorial profession in order to profess the gospel. A statement on their team website explains, “We see that Christ acknowledges while the disciples may now catch fish, soon they shall be catching people. So too does Christ call baseball players to not only play the game but to ultimately use their gifts and passion to follow Jesus and make disciples.”
Wichert says the competition and environment on the field compares favorably with some of the best leagues in the country, noting that places like San Luis Obispo regularly draw more than 2,000 fans to games.
“They treat that a lot like a minor league team,” said Wichert.
Those fans aren’t just bored on a summer night either. They are coming out to see top flight baseball talent in a state that notoriously offers plenty of handy distractions.
“It’s a legit league. Everybody’s from D1 schools and there’s a lot of SEC guys. It’s pretty insane,” said Wichert. “It’s pretty crazy. It’s honestly the best league I’ve ever played in my life.”
The Catch play teams from up and down California, including the MLB Urban Youth Academy out of Compton. Wichert said that most pitchers in the California Collegiate League are throwing in the 87-93 mile per hour range, whereas his fastball typically tops out around 85-86 mph. He also deploys a funky sidearm delivery and a buffet of offspeed pitches in order to keep hitters off balance.
“I’m not scraping my knuckles but I get pretty low now,” said Wichert. “I find a lot of success because people are out in front.”
This summer, Wichert has finally been able to get the regular useage he has fought so hard for throughout his career. His role has been primarily as a setup man in the seventh or eighth innings for the Catch.
“I pitch pretty much every other game. I’m probably the most used reliever on the team,” said Wichert. “It’s nice. I’ve been able to help the team out quite a bit.”
To wit, Wichert earned recognition as the Catch’s featured player for the first week of July after a series of impressive outings. On June 20, Wichert held the first-place Santa Barbara Foresters scoreless in an inning of work. Wichert then followed that performance up with a pair of spotless outings against the defending league champion Orange County Riptide in which he tossed three combined innings with no runs or hits surrendered.
In addition to his typical 4-seam overhand fastball, Wichert throws a “no-seam” fastball that he says behaves like a sinker, a two-seam fastball that runs like a cheetah, a slippery slider and a hammer curveball. Always looking to improve his repertoire, Wichert says he’s also been working hard to improve his change up, but lamented, “it’s hard to get a real good grip with my baby hands.”
In his trials against top tier hitters, Wichert says he learned one thing right quick.
“You’ve just got to keep it low,” Wichert deadpanned. “I gave up a bomb up in Santa Barbara. It was absolutely crushed and it was the best pitch I could have thrown. But it was a guy from Texas and you know what, he just beat me. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap.”
On top of the on the diamond experiences with the Catch, Wichert was an enthusiastic contributor to the team’s missionary work in Mexico. This summer the team returned to Primo Tapia on the Baja California peninsula in order to continue working on an orphanage they had helped to start the previous year.
“That was a great experience. I wound up putting up the drywall and painting it,” said Wichert. “We were actually able to go there because of the road that they built last year.”
Like Moonlight Graham in ‘Field of Dreams,’ Wichert is well aware that he will not be able to play baseball forever so he has made sure to take full advantage of the academic opportunities that have come his way as well. A 3.895 GPA student in high school, Wichert has managed to maintain a 3.75 GPA through his first two years of college while working part-time and going full speed ahead on his baseball pursuits.
With his two-year degree in hand, Wichert now plans to attain a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Southern Nazarene, and whenever the well runs dry on his baseball career, he intends to attend medical school and become an anesthesiologist.
Wichert believes that his propensity for thoughtful planning along with his proven academic track record have helped to open new doors along the way during his college baseball odyssey.
“It shows that I work hard,” he said.
As hard as he works off the field, Wichert still lives and breathes for the thrill of pulling his socks high, his hat low, and spiking up with his teammates on a day-to-day basis.
“I just love the game and I love the challenges. I would say I’m just in love with the process and being able to play every day is a dream,” Wichert said as he attempted to pinpoint his favorite part of the baseball life. “I’d say it’s just been being around all of these players and coaches and being able to learn so much from it. Being able to play all year round is a lot different than just being able to play off and on in Washington.”
While he’ll be headed to Oklahoma in a few weeks, Wichert noted that he will still be eligible for the California Collegiate League next summer and he’d like to hook up with the Catch for another summer on the coast in 2019.
In the meantime, he hopes that his meandering path through the wilderness of college baseball can provide a roadmap of sorts for younger players back home who may have bigger hearts than hands.
“Definitely don’t ever let somebody tell you what you can or you can’t do,” said Wichert. “You dictate your future and if you trust in God, you can go anywhere.”