Pro debut for Heslabeck

UNCP Athletics | Wes Heslabeck throws a pitch for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke baseball team during a 2015 game. He signed a free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this month.

PEMBROKE — Wes Heslabeck waited patiently from June 8 to June 10, hoping to hear his name called during the 2015 MLB Draft.

It didn’t happen. Between June 8 and 10, 1,215 players were drafted. The 22-year-old left-handed pitcher out of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke wasn’t one of them.

But on June 9 he did receive a promising phone call from the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

“(The organization) asked if I cared about how much I got paid and I told them I just wanted an opportunity,” Heslabeck said. “They said, ‘Don’t be surprised if you get another phone call.’”

On the final day of the draft, roughly 10 minutes after the final selection, Heslabeck got that second phone call. His patience paid off with a free-agent contract offer from the Dodgers.

“When (the Dodgers) called me after the draft everything changed,” Heslabeck said. “It felt unreal to make my dream a reality.”

The southpaw flew out to Camelback Ranch on June 13 — the Spring Training home of the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox — in Arizona, where he signed the contract to officially begin his professional career.

“I was obviously excited, but it still took a couple of days for it to set in,” said Heslabeck, who begins his pro career with the Ogden Raptors, an advanced rookie affiliate of the Dodgers based in Utah. “When you walk in the locker room and see your name on the back of a jersey, it’s unreal.”

It didn’t take long for Heslabeck to make his pro debut in that jersey. On Sunday, he pitched one scoreless inning of relief for the Raptors in a 4-3 home loss to Idaho Falls, giving up one hit and striking out a batter.

He also had the chance to hear some words of encouragement from Roger Clemens, who threw out the first pitch. The 11-time MLB All-Star and two-time World Series champion won seven Cy Young Awards during his career — the most of any pitcher in history.

“It was cool to hear from a Cy Young winner because you know if he said it, it worked,” Heslabeck said. “It definitely gave me some motivation on Sunday night. I pretty much just grabbed my stuff and was ready to go.”

Heslabeck, a Rural Hall native grew up an Atlanta Braves fan and had the opportunity to watch his favorite team battle the Dodgers in the 2013 National League Division Series.

But he never cared about where he played in the majors, as long as he got the opportunity.

“I believe that’s every kid’s goal growing up playing sports,” Heslabeck said. “You ultimately want to make it to the highest level no matter where you go.”

While he isn’t an Atlanta Brave, he’ll always be a UNCP Brave.

As a key arm in UNCP’s pitching rotation in 2015, Helsabeck posted a 5-1 record, 4.82 ERA and one save in his only season in Pembroke. He also struck out 62 batters and won each of his first four starts. He compiled a 6-2 record in his first two collegiate seasons at Surry Community College in Dobson, and then tallied a 6-1 record in leading Winston-Salem State to an NCAA Tournament appearance as a junior in 2014.

“It was bittersweet to have a good senior season because I wish I could’ve done it for three more years at Pembroke,” Heslabeck said. “PO (UNCP baseball coach Paul O’Neil) just has the mentality to work hard every day and that’s what helped us be successful. We had that same mentality.”

O’Neil was ecstatic about Wes’ opportunity to keep playing baseball.

“I think it’s great for Wes,” O’Neil said. “He’s a hard-working kid who obviously has some talent. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

O’Neil said Heslabeck has two things that increases his chances of moving up the professional ranks.

“When you throw from the left side and have a fastball that runs in the 90s, it’s a plus (with the scouts),” O’Neil said. “If he can continue to develop his slider and grow, he gives himself a chance to stay around and keep climbing the ladder.’

With the signing, Helsabeck became the 21st player in the history of UNCP baseball to draw attention from professional scouts.

It’s a number O’Neil doesn’t take for granted.

“First and foremost it means we’re recruiting talented athletes,” said O’Neil, who just finished his 15th season as UNCP’s skipper. “(The coaches) just put the guys in the right situation and give them the right instruction to let their natural talents take over. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of really good players come through. Anytime they get a chance to realize a boyhood dream, it’s great.”

For Heslabeck the journey is just beginning, but that doesn’t mean the thought of pitching at Dodger Stadium hasn’t crossed his mind.

“I think it would be unreal to step on any major league field,” Heslabeck said. “But to do it for one of the most storied and successful franchises in baseball history, that would be a great honor and privilege.”