Towing the Rubber

By JOE McFARLAND

As the strikeouts pile up, Matt Wilkinson might have to think about adding a few more K’s to his name.

The Dawgs Academy grad has been electric in his first season with the Central Arizona College Vaqueros, going 5-1 with two saves and a 1.56 earned-run average (ERA) in 16 appearances.

The eye-popping statistic is that in just over 40 innings of work, Wilkinson has registered 71 strikeouts.

“I focus on attacking the hitter,” he said in a recent episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “I don’t like to call my own game, as I like staying in a mode where I just see the sign, then I’m gone and ready to throw.”

After spending most of the season in the bullpen, Wilkinson was handed his first start on May 13th, where he struck out nine in more than seven innings of work to help the Vaqueros to the 9-4 win over Cochise College.

It’s a sign of things to come for the young southpaw, who has a history of ringing up batters.

AN UNREAL FIRST IMPRESSION

A native of Ladner, B.C., Wilkinson really burst onto the scene during the 2015 Little League World Series.

Representing Canada with White Rock South Surrey Little League, he was handed the ball for the team’s opener against Mexico.

The fireballer struck out 16 batters in just five innings, with an additional strikeout generated on a dropped third strike which allowed the Mexico batter to safely reach first base.

“To be honest, I don’t really remember the game much,” Wilkinson laughed. “It was one of those black-out moments where you just get in a zone.”

Unfortunately, Canada dropped a 1-0 decision in that game, and while his team wasn’t able to muster a win in Williamsport, he still managed to soak in the opportunity.

READ MORE: Trip Down LLWS Memory Lane

“As a twelve-year-old, it was like a week of Christmas,” Wilkinson said. “It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had, meeting kids from Australia and Uganda and Japan, I mean, you can’t really get much better than that.”

It also became a springboard for more traveling to keep playing the game he loves.

THE TOP DAWG

When asked about how it came to be that a west coast athlete headed east to Alberta to play baseball, Wilkinson credits one person: long-time friend and teammate Alejandro Cazorla-Granados.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone to Okotoks,” he admitted. “When he decided to go, I got a call from (Tyler) Hollick and the rest is history.”

Wilkinson, whose nickname “Tugboat” has stuck with him since his dad’s best friend gave it to him as a young ball player, went on a visit to the Dawgs’ facility and realized it was where he wanted to be.

He was quickly surrounded by a great team and older players like Graham Brunner, as well as coaches like Jeff Duda, who he credits for his mindset on the mound today.

“The key for me, if I’m being completely honest, is getting strike one,” Wilkinson said. “It doesn’t matter what pitch I use, but just getting ahead in the count helps so much.”

Getting ahead in the count makes him feel like he “owns” the batter, forcing them to adjust to what he is giving them, allowing him to attack with his arsenal of pitches.

Wilkinson was also one of the Dawgs Academy players to get the call to join the Western Canadian Baseball League’s Okotoks Dawgs for their championship run in 2019.

He didn’t disappoint, going 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA in three games, punching out 16 batters in 12.2 innings. He also made one appearance in the playoffs, striking out seven in over five innings of work.

After the COVID-19 pandemic ground things to a halt in 2020, Wilkinson returned to form on the mound for Dawgs Black.

In six games, he posted a 1-1 record with a 2.66 ERA, striking out an eye-popping 56 batters in just 27 innings.

“If I can strike out everyone I can, that’s my goal,” Wilkinson said. “I try to do that, but I just want to fill up the zone.”

WORLD SERIES ASPIRATIONS

That set the stage for his first season in college, where he remains modest about the season he has managed to put together.

“I’m pretty happy about my performance but there are some things that could definitely be better,” Wilkinson said. “With college baseball, I’ve learned you have to stay as consistent as possible, because when I stay consistent, it helps the team win and that’s the goal at the end of the day is win a lot of games.”

Central Arizona has done exactly that, posting a 50-11 record including 29-9 in conference play, and have been tagged as one of the top teams heading into playoffs.

The team doesn’t just want to make it into the Junior College (JUCO) World Series, they expect to win it after claiming the title with fellow Dawgs Academy grad Clayton Keyes in 2019 and losing in the championship game in 2021.

“This is one of the coolest groups I’ve ever been a part of,” Wilkinson said. “It’s just so talented from top to bottom, and we really don’t have a hole on this entire team.”

The team, which also includes another Dawgs’ alum in Tyrese Johnson, also went through some adversity in April, losing four in a row for the first time all season.

READ MORE: 3 Up, 3 Down with Matt Wilkinson

“We were all kind of shocked but it was kind of like a gut check,” the 6-foot-1, 265-pound lefthander said. “We all came together and now, it’s just loose – we’re going out and having fun and I think that’s why we’re so good.”

Whether it be as a starter or coming out of the bullpen, the University of Utah commit is excited for the opportunity to challenge for a national championship.

“We all know what we’re capable of – being the best team in the country,” Wilkinson said. “So, why not go out and do it?”

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