Updated May 11, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It seems that Ray Birmingham has found a "Mound Bulldog," and we're not just talking about Willy Kesler's square, 215-pound, linebacker-like frame that would look just as natural aimed at a quarterback as it does facing a batter.
Kesler's toughness on the mound, for sure, comes from a fastball that bites true into predetermined spots. He is strengthened by a confident and nasty curveball. He is armed by a changeup that has fooled many a slow eye and a hesitant swing.
But this Lobo Bulldog also has been formed by adversity and hard times. Some from no fault of his own - bad luck -- and some self inflicted - bad choices. He has stepped out of these setbacks as a better pitcher and as a more mature Lobo looking at a straighter course.
The bad luck was a pop in his throwing arm that led to Tommy John surgery in May of 2008. The bad choices might have been a product of that bad luck. Kesler didn't take care of business in the classroom. Birmingham struck like a high-and-inside Kesler fastball.
"We have a tendency as human beings to feel sorry for ourselves and I think he was going through a little of that," said Birmingham. "I told him, that's fine, you can do that, it's up to you. But here's what's going to happen.
"He got a lesson in accountability. It was a great wake-up call for him and he stepped it up."
Birmingham's fastball of accountability was taking away Kesler's scholarship for the fall of 2009, a punishment for letting his grades slip below a 2.5 in the spring of 2009. Kesler said the loss of his ride hit him like a physical blow.
"It opened my eyes," said the UNM senior. "I never thought anything like that would happen to me. I had a 3.0 in junior college. I was a different kind of wake-up call than the surgery because it was all my fault.
"I wasn't playing baseball (five innings in spring of 2009) and I let that carry over into the classroom. Coach B (Birmingham) told me they needed me to be part of the team and he expected me to bust my tail, get my grades up and come back to the team."
If you know anything about Kesler, you aren't surprised at the outcome. He busted his tail. He hit the books, hit summer school, and pulled back his scholarship for the spring semester of 2010.
Kesler's most recent outings have been stunning, including a 3-2 gem he threw at the TCU Horned Frogs this past Saturday. You can appreciate Kesler's dominance even more by looking at the numbers TCU pushed onto the scoreboard in the Frogs' next game vs. UNM: a 26-4 trip to the woodshed.
Kesler (5-1) got his fifth win of the season against TCU and is 3-0 in his last three starts. The Thornton, Colo., native went nine innings, scattering four hits and registering nine strikeouts. The performance earned him his second MWC Player of Week honors this season.
"This is a huge win for our program," said Kesler after the game. "Beating these guys is something we've needed to go since I came here. This is huge, especially at home and having all our fans behind us. I was just trying to compete and do whatever I could to help the team get the victory."
Kesler has simply been dominant, of late. At San Diego State, on national TV, he threw eight innings of shutout baseball and allowed only two hits in a 14-1 stomping of Aztecs.
Kesler also has posted a 7.1 inning win at UNLV. He struck out five Rebels and gave up only six hits. Before that, he threw a complete game in a 5-2 win over Utah. Kesler struck out 13 Utes while yielding seven hits. These are Bulldog-like numbers.
The fact that Kesler is tough is not news. The game after he ripped a ligament in his throwing elbow, Kesler pitched seven innings. "It didn't feel good at all," Kesler recalls that outing. "I had to keep squeezing my hand to get feeling in it."
It was obvious that Kesler needed surgery, but the elbow stuff had to wait. First, he had an emergency appendectomy. Then came the elbow.
"It was definitely a depressing time," he said. "And even though you know the surgery can help and you can come back strong, you still have that thought in your head that your baseball days might be over."
From football to baseball
Kesler's baseball roots are humble ones. The first day of practice in Thornton, Colo., he showed up in jeans - with no glove. He was fashionable enough to show up with a Colorado Rockies' cap perched atop his 7-year-old head.
"My first football coach asked my mom, `Has he ever played baseball?'" said Kesler. "She said, `No.' He said, `He does now.' I showed up for practice and didn't even have a glove. I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a Rockies' cap.
That's Kesler's plan. He has enough speed, enough potential, enough control to tempt some pro team to give him a chance. He also is a Bulldog, who appears to be getting tougher on the mound as the trust in the restructured elbow increases.
"You have to have some fight in you," said Birmingham. "You can be scared or you can go out there and find out yes or no. Willy is saying yes."
Said Kesler: "The surgery messed with me mentally and emotionally. But the arm came back and everything feels fine. I'm starting to get a good feel for the ball. Pitching is comfort and confidence and I have those feelings out there."
Kesler came to UNM by way of Lamar Community College where he was a standout. He made First Team All-Region in 2007 with a 0.82 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 88 innings. He threw a school-record 10 complete games. As a Lobo in 2008, he was 4-0 with a 1.90 ERA when his elbow injury - and appendix - ended the season.
"He's been pretty stinking good," said Birmingham. "He's a nice guy off the field, kind of jolly. But when he gets on the field, he locks in and competes. He gets after it. I think there's a pro career out there, if he continues that way."
Again, that's Kesler's plan - to play in the pros. He has the pitches and he has the Bulldog attitude. He has other motivation, too. If he doesn't make it, he just might have to return a glove to a long-ago coach.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.