When pitcher Arturo Guajardo wakes up in the morning these days, he feels hope. He’s happy. The strikeouts leader for the Flying Chanclas de San Antonio feels optimistic about his baseball career for the first time in years.
It’s been a welcome change in mood for Guajardo, who has lived with equal parts pain and frustration over the past few years. He doesn’t feel like he has the game completely figured out. Not by a long shot.
He just feels like, after Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in 2018, he’s finally gaining traction again after two lost seasons.
“I think I’m throwing the ball pretty good,” said Guajardo, a 23-year-old from Laredo who attends UTSA. “I feel like I could definitely have better days. But at the end of the day, it’s baseball. You just have to find ways to compete and keep yourself in there.”
Heading into tonight’s home game against the Brazos Valley Bombers, Guajardo at least has established himself as a favorite of manager John McLaren, who calls his name out of the bullpen every other game or so.
“I tell you what, he loves getting the ball,” McLaren said. “The bigger the situation, he’s ready to go. He’s been very impressive. He’s the first one in the clubhouse every day. I get to the ball park (early), just a habit I’ve had during my whole career. He’s in there shortly thereafter.
“He dresses out, and then he goes and works in the weight room. He’s the first one in the clubhouse every day.”
Guajardo’s due diligence has paid off. In six appearances, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has employed a low- to mid-90s fastball to produce a sparkling earned-run-average of 0.69. In 13 innings, he has notched 22 strikeouts with only six walks.
Fans at Wolff Stadium have started to notice how he likes to challenge hitters with hard stuff high in the strike zone.
“Oh, yeah,” Guajardo said. “That’s my go-to (pitch). It looks fat to the hitters. The ball looks real nice and juicy to them. They can’t lay off of it. When they lay off it, I know those hitters are good. I say, all right. If they lay off of No. 1, I’m going to have to start trying some other stuff.”
When Guajardo’s story with the Chanclas is told, it will have a poignant ring for fans who have followed the fortunes of baseball in the Alamo City over the years. Not only is it the story of a young man who has overcome the hardship of a serious injury, but it’s also one that is wrapped around the legend of the late Will Brunson.
Brunson, coming up through the minor leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, helped the Missions win a Texas League championship in 1997.
A few years ago, as a scout working in Texas for the Philadelphia Phillies, Brunson tipped off local college coaches to Guajardo. Tragically, Brunson died last November of a heart attack while hiking at Big Bend National Park.
UTSA coach Pat Hallmark, formerly of the University of the Incarnate Word, offered up the anecdote in a telephone interview with The JB Replay on Monday.
“We knew a little bit about (Arturo),” Hallmark said. “We recruited him (to UIW) when he was down at Laredo Junior College. So did coach (Jason) Marshall and the guys over at UTSA … (Arturo) was a shortstop. He was playing shortstop mostly at junior college, but he had a good arm. One of the local scouts told us about him. He said he’s an OK shortstop and that he liked him.”
The scout was Brunson.
“Will really liked him as a pitcher,” Hallmark said. “Will kind of saw the whole thing before anybody else did. Will liked him as a pitcher, and he told us that. So, we got on him. Coach Marshall (then the coach at UTSA) got on him. I don’t know (how) they were going to use him. But he ended up at UTSA. And (now) he’s throwing harder than he ever has, for sure.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, minor league professional baseball in America took a major hit this year. Camps were closed in March. The seasons were suspended, then canceled. With the Missions taking a major hit financially, they opted to field a team in the TCL to play some games and generate some revenue at Wolff.
In constructing a roster, they looked primarily at local college players.
One of those players just so happened to be Guajardo, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to dominate the TCL as a reliever – on the same field that Brunson played on more than 20 years ago.
In light of the circumstances, Missions general manager Burl Yarbrough was asked in a text if he had a baseball angel working on his behalf this summer. “Great story!” Yarbrough replied. “Will was a good one!!!”
A few years ago, Guajardo was an unlikely candidate to play in any high-level collegiate summer league. In the spring of 2018, he was already starting to feel pain in his elbow at Laredo JC. Later that fall, in his first semester at UTSA, he ripped an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow while throwing in a bullpen session.
“It was really tough,” he said. “I mean, I probably had a breakdown about every week, just not knowing what the future had (in store), or anything. I thought I was going to be cut. All this stuff. You’re thinking about all the negativity when you can’t do anything.
“The way I kept myself normal, I guess you would say, without going crazy, was just having faith and … honestly, just trusting the process because if you start putting your thoughts somewhere else, you’re done.
“That really tests your mental toughness. Because you’re out for a year, you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether you’re going to come back the same. You don’t know if you’re still going to be hurt. Or if the surgery is going to be a success. It’s just like, I’m really glad I was able to get out of it.”
Guajardo sat out all of 2019 during rehabilitation. He started throwing off a mound in August of that year and then started throwing against hitters in October. But at the start of the 2020 college season in February, he still wasn’t quite ready.
So, he waited patiently for Hallmark to call his name. Finally, in March, he was told to get ready to pitch at home in a Conference USA-opening weekend series against Charlotte. Unfortunately for Guajardo, players were told later that day that the weekend series was called off because of the threat of the virus.
Pretty soon, the season was canceled, leaving Guajardo wondering what to do. He started planning, trying to figure out a way to extend his career. Luckily, the NCAA ruled that seniors in spring sports would get an extra year of eligibility. Meaning that, Guajardo could play for UTSA in 2021.
“It was a weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I just didn’t know what was going to happen. I mean, there is still weight on my shoulders. But not like that. With the injury, and with the Covid, I thought I was done. I thought my career was done.”
With the extra season, Guajardo was suddenly eligible to play in collegiate summer leagues. Gradually, he has built a reputation as one of the TCL’s best arms out of the bullpen. Hallmark said he has been told that Guajardo has thrown as hard as 97 mph.
McLaren doesn’t think he’s throwing quite that hard. But he’s throwing hard enough to suit the former manager of the Seattle Mariners.
“I think he’s been in the 90s,” McLaren said. “ I don’t think he’s been up to 97. I haven’t got the (reports on the) scouts’ guns, but I was thinking he was throwing low 90s for sure, which is good. He’s been throwing strikes. That’s the main thing. No, he’s been a great addition for us. He’s done a really nice job.”
Guajardo said players on the Chanclas aren’t paying attention to their own statistics. But they do know that they’re winning — they’ve won seven of nine entering the Brazos Valley Series — and that they’re in a fight for the TCL South Division title.
“I think we’re just having fun,” he said. “That’s what it feels like. Everyone’s just having fun.”