FORT MYERS, FLA. — When the Twins made Alex Wimmers a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 2010, scouts raved about his pinpoint command and feel for pitching, which made the events of last April 11 all the more puzzling.
Wimmers, a two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, not only couldn't throw strikes in his season debut for Class A Fort Myers, he couldn't feel the ball.
"I honestly don't know when it happened, but it did," Wimmers said this week. "I just woke up overnight, I guess, and couldn't throw. It really feels like your whole body's numb, and you can't control anything."
The Twins had hoped Wimmers would climb quickly through their system, as 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson had a year earlier, advancing from Class A to Class AAA. Catcher Danny Rams had heard all about Wimmers' precision and couldn't wait to see it.
"The first pitch he threw, literally, went halfway up the backstop behind me," Rams said. "He couldn't find it after that. He was throwing it up, down, in, out. The only time he threw a strike is when he threw it like 80 miles per hour, just lobbing it in there."
Wimmers walked the bases loaded. Then he walked home three runs, sprinkling in three wild pitches without recording a single out. He threw 28 pitches. Four strikes.
The Cincinnati native was shaken, and so were the Twins. Former Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel had his career derailed by the yips, sending him to the outfield. Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Sax are among the infielders who've been through this throwing syndrome.
"When you see that happening, you better slow a guy down and try to get him on track before he goes out there again," said Eric Rasmussen, Twins minor league pitching coordinator. "So we kind of took some time and worked him through it."
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Looking back, the 23-year-old Wimmers has a better understanding what happened to him last April. Until that night, he never had experienced anything like it, never really even struggled.
Then again, he hadn't always seemed destined for greatness, either. He wasn't drafted out of Moeller High School in Cincinnati. He wasn't handed a full ride to Ohio State. At 6-1, he didn't have one of those large frames that make scouts drool, like the 6-6 Gibson.
Wimmers spent his freshman year in the Buckeyes bullpen before telling then-coach Bob Todd that he wanted to start. Todd told him he had better learn a third pitch to go with his fastball and curve, so Wimmers spent that summer developing a circle changeup. By the time he was drafted two years later, scouts were comparing that pitch to Brad Radke's.
After drafting him with the 21st overall pick, the Twins gave him a $1.3 million signing bonus. He went 2-0 with a 0.57 ERA in four starts for Fort Myers, raising expectations even higher for 2011.
"Growing up, I was always the underdog," Wimmers said. "It was really different for me, getting selected in the first round and all of a sudden getting all this attention."
Wimmers injured a hamstring last spring, but he said that didn't affect him April 11. What happened wasn't physical, he said, only mental.
The Twins placed him on the disabled list and worked to gradually rebuild his confidence, away from crowds. Wimmers didn't see a psychologist, but he leaned heavily on friends, family and Twins employees, such as Rasmussen.
"If it wasn't for them, I don't know if I'd be here [on a baseball field] today," Wimmers said. "I learned not to take anything in life for granted. I think I've become a better person and better player because of it."
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Wimmers rejoined his Fort Myers teammates last July and made seven relief appearances before moving back into the rotation. On Sept. 3, in his final start, he proved how far he had come, tossing a no-hitter in Jupiter, Fla. Once again, the catcher was Rams.
"When he came back, it was just like a different person," Rams said. "Like the stories I'd heard of him -- in and out, a strike machine. He throws 90-91 [mph], but the ball gets right on you. From where he started the year to where he ended it, I've never seen anything like that."
Other pitchers haven't been as fortunate. The Twins made Shooter Hunt a first-round pick in 2008 and watched him walk 61 batters in 42 2/3 innings for Fort Myers last year. They let him go to the Cardinals last December in the Class AAA phase of the Rule 5 draft.
But Wimmers continued his late-season success during the Twins fall instructional camp. Minor league practice starts again Thursday, and though he likely will start the season in Fort Myers, the Twins hope he'll graduate to Class AA New Britain by midseason.
"What I've learned is you can't look ahead," Wimmers said. "You can only control today, and everything will take care of itself."
Baseball America listed Wimmers as the Twins 25th-best prospect this winter, down from No. 7 last year. But that's OK with Wimmers. He likes having something to prove.