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July 3, 2014

WALLACE STATE BASEBALL: Former Lion 3B Zelous Wheeler promoted to New York Yankees

HANCEVILLE — In what is becoming a near-annual tradition, another Wallace State baseball alum has been promoted to the major leagues.

Zelous Wheeler was summoned to the New York Yankees late Wednesday night and will join the big league team Thursday as they begin a four-game series in Minnesota. Wheeler, a Childersburg native, was hitting .299 with seven homers and 31 RBIs for the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders this season. He also compiled a team-high 20 doubles and was hitting .348 against lefties.

Wheeler, 27, becomes the fifth former Wallace State baseball player in six seasons to be promoted to major leagues, joining Derek Holland (2009), Craig Kimbrel (2010), Graham Godfrey (2011) and Jake Elmore (2012). 

“It makes my day to know Zelous has made it to the big leagues. It puts a big smile on my face because for someone who never had the opportunity to play in the big leagues, it’s almost like seeing another son make it up there. It’s just an awesome thing,” said Wallace State coach Randy Putman, a NJCAA Hall of Famer who played in the Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres organizations. “Zelous was a pleasure to coach. Every day was a positive day for him when he was here.  He strove to get better each day. Every day was a championship day for Zelous when he was on the ballfield. He hated to lose and cared more about the team being successful than anything else.

“Zelous battled every single day and never gave up, no matter if we were up or down by 10 runs in a game.”

Wheeler, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound utility man, primarily played third base during his Wallace State career, spanning the 2006 and 2007 seasons. As a freshman on Wallace State’s 2006 NJCAA World Series team, Wheeler hit .302 with five homers  and 43 RBIs, helping the Lions wins their seventh state championship.

Wheeler continued to be a force at the plate his sophomore season, batting .412 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs.

At Wallace State, Wheeler was teammates with Holland, Kimbrel and Elmore.

Wheeler was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 19th round of the 2007 MLB draft and immediately signed with the organization out of Wallace State. He hit .275 with 11 homers and 65 RBIs with the Double-A Huntsville Stars  in 2010 and was promoted to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds by the end of the 2011 season. Despite his solid minor league numbers, the Brewers placed Wheeler on waivers in March 2012, and the Baltimore Orioles scooped him up by month’s end. Wheeler spent the  2012 and 2013 seasons in Double- and Triple-A with the Orioles before being released last offseason.

The Yankees signed Wheeler to a minor league free agent deal on Nov. 12, 2013, and his strong work in Triple-A this season has been well worth it. Wheeler, who’s hit .274 with 75 homers in 829 career games, has a chance to provide a jolt to a Yankees infield core that has struggled to hit consistently.

Unlike the rapid career ascents of some of his former Wallace State teammates, Wheeler bided his time in the minor leagues with a great deal of persistence.

It’s a quality Putman admires. 

“The last few winters Zelous has played in the Mexican League. Instead of going home for the winter and resting, he’s been focused on getting better. From all I’ve heard, the Mexican League is a very good professional league,” Putman said. “I tip my hat to anyone who has the desire to play in 140 minor league games a year and then go play in another league up until a couple of weeks before Christmas. Zelous works hard and has proven to those in the Yankees organization that he is ready to contribute in the major leagues.”

Just Wednesday afternoon, Putman was on the phone with former Wallace State player Dustin Lawley, who is currently playing for the Double-A Binghamton Mets. Lawley asked Putman about Wheeler’s season.

“Dustin asked me if I thought Zelous had a chance to make it to the big leagues this year. I told him if Zelous keeps putting up strong numbers he’ll have an awesome chance. I didn’t know that chance was going to come so soon,” said Putman, who surpassed the 900-win plateau this spring. “I told the scout who signed Zelous in 2007 that he would play in the big leagues one day because he is strong physically and mentally. For a big man, Zelous is a tremendous athlete and has that football mentality.  I’m so thrilled Zelous has stuck it out.”

Under Putman’s guidance, Wallace State has produced 31 professional players, including the major leaguers. Before joining the Lions in 1990, Putman also coached Jay Bell and Travis Fryman at Tate High School in Pensacola, Fla.

Godfrey, who debuted in 2011 with the Oakland Athletics, said in April that Putman is the perfect coach to prepare a player for the rigors of professional baseball.

“Having the run of success of Wallace State’s players in the major leagues speaks for itself. It’s a huge testament to the quality of the program, but more so about what coach Putman has been able to do with each player,” said Godfrey,  who played at Wallace State in 2005. “I look back and tell people that he (Putman) is the best coach I’ve ever played for. He truly made me what I am today. If you are serious about baseball, you can’t go wrong with Wallace State.”

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