Tony Whitlock is proof you can take the horse out of the race but you can't take the race out of the horse.
Whitlock had spent nine years pitching for the Brainerd Braves amateur baseball team before a few bulging discs in his back, and a sore arm, forced him to leave the game he loved.
The injuries kept Whitlock away from the ballpark for the 2002 and 2003 seasons. It didn't take much to rekindle Whitlock's passion, a passion that never left.
"I always wanted to come back," Whitlock said. "The day I quit I wanted to come back. My old manager, Marty Hill, called me and wanted me to go down to the league meeting with the intention of getting me riled up to come back. I didn't make it to the meeting but just thinking about it got me hooked."
Whitlock is back where he belongs, atop the mound with a ball in his hand, guiding the Braves through the Victory League season.
In the first four games of the season, Whitlock was 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA in 33 innings. He struck out 44, an average of 1.3 per inning, and allowed only eight walks while giving up 28 hits.
Whitlock pitched two nine-inning complete games as well as eight- and seven-inning complete games. His endurance on the mound is a reason why the Braves have been successful.
"I've always had a rubber arm," Whitlock said. "I think a lot of it is good mechanics as far as how you're throwing the ball. If you're not throwing your breaking ball right you're going to get tired and your arm is going to get sore.
"I also find places to throw in the offseason. I threw two to three days a week up until the start of the season. Doing that extra work really helps out."
"I've never been one to want to leave any situation on the mound."
Whitlock, who helped the Brainerd Warriors to the 1995 state championship and the Braves to the 2000 state amateur title, admits he isn't quite back to his dominating form.
"I expected to be right back to where I used to be," he said. "I don't know if I'm there quite yet. I've learned a lot as a pitcher about placement and how to throw to different batters."
Braves manager Derek Owen isn't surprised by the way his ace is throwing the ball.
"Tony has been one of the best pitchers in all of amateur baseball for a number of years," Owen said. "He can hit spots, he uses four or five pitches and he does a good job of mixing them up. He's just gotten stronger and stronger each game."
And, hitters just keep sitting down. Whitlock hasn't had to rely on his fastball much and usually gives hitters a steady diet of off-speed pitches to keep them guessing.
"The slider has probably been my best pitch overall," he said. "The overhand curveball has been really good and I've been spotting the fastball inside and outside. I still like going inside on batters."
During Whitlock's two-year hiatus, Chase Nelson of Pequot Lakes took over as the Braves' ace. Nelson, who also throws for St. Cloud State University, is now back for the Braves, giving them a solid 1-2 punch.
"Having Chase back is wonderful," said Whitlock. "He's been throwing well the past couple years and he's good. One thing in this league you have to have is pitching."
One thing Whitlock has learned over the years is to control his emotions. Spending the last few years away from the game may have accelerated that learning process.
"The key is not to show you're rattled," said Whitlock. "I think this year my emotion level is way down. I still get excited but I'm not showing the emotion that I have in past years. I've learned a lot in the last nine years and that's to stay cool and calm."
TROY GUNDERSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5865.
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