MOREHEAD CITY — Morehead City Marlins closer Kenny Wells is no longer an amateur pitcher.
The right-handed junior from Seton Hill University signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, becoming the first Marlin to leave mid-season for a professional contract. On Thursday, Wells was already in Danville throwing pitches for Atlanta’s minor league affiliate Danville Braves.
“It’s honestly so surreal,” Wells said Friday. “It took a while to sink in that this is my job now. I’m just going to embrace a blue-collar attitude going forward and keep trying to move up. I hate that I have to leave (the Marlins), but I can’t pass up this opportunity. This is why we do what we do.”
Wells came into this season with the Marlins as the No. 3-ranked prospect in the Coastal Plain League, according to the summer collegiate baseball rankings website PerfectGame.org. But when the MLB Draft came and went, the Ohio native’s name wasn’t called.
“It was disappointing, especially because it was projected by a few people that I would,” Wells said. “That’s how it happens, though. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. That’s why when this opportunity
presented itself, I was ready.”
The 21-year-old was an integral part of last year’s Petitt Cup-winning Marlins team. His return was a no-brainer for the Morehead City franchise when he became available after the draft.
“He came out this summer as a man on a mission,” Marlins coach Jesse Lancaster said. “It wasn’t just at the ball park, it was in the weight room and the early workouts. He had a plan the whole time he was here. He’s so deserving of this opportunity. He works hard. This is what it’s all about, getting a chance to play baseball for a living. I’m tickled to death for Kenny.”
Wells made full use of his time with the Marlins. He leaves tied with Leo Perez (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) with a team-high three wins and three saves, despite pitching just 7 2/3 innings in seven appearances. Both the win and save totals rank third in the CPL.
Wells only tallied 14 strikeouts, ranked 12th on the team, but his 16.43 strikeouts per nine innings are second on the team. There are six Marlins pitchers with a 0.00 ERA, but Wells had the second-most innings on the bump among them.
Wells was tabbed as an all-star before his free agency offer. He also represented the CPL Select Team in the annual matchup with Team USA on Monday.
“I got a text from the Braves asking if I was still open to a free-agent contract,” Wells said. “I told them yes, but that I really wanted to pitch in the CPL Select game against Team USA before I make any decisions.”
Wells pitched one inning in the game, striking out two while allowing one hit and an earned run.
“After the game, I got a text from the scout that night, basically saying they really wanted me now that they saw me pitch,” he said. “The next day, I packed up my stuff and flew out to Atlanta to get a physical.”
On Thursday, Wells was in Danville signing his contract an hour before the Braves took on the Princeton Rays farm team for the Tampa Bay Rays. Wells pitched the final inning of a seven-inning rain-shortened contest, allowing no hits and no runs in his debut. He threw 12 pitches, eight of which registered as strikes.
“When I was in the bullpen, the coach joked ‘You’re going to pitch today,’ ” Wells said. “I was waiting during the game, and then my name came through the walkie-talkie. I had some butterflies as I was warming up, but as soon as I got out there, it was second nature. I was just living in the moment and embracing it.”
Wells was also primarily a situational pitcher for Seton Hill as a junior, tossing 31 innings and putting up a 4-1 record through 15 appearances and three starts. His velocity is his biggest weapon, something Lancaster sees working in his favor at the next level.
“I think (the Braves) will continue to use him as a reliever/closer type,” Lancaster said. “He’s got very high-end velocity, usually between 94 mph and 97 mph. He’s young, he’s fresh and he hasn’t been worn down over his college career. There’s a lot to work with. He can advance pretty quickly if he can continue to throw strikes and develop his breaking ball.”
Wells is the third Seton Hill player to play for the Marlins before moving on to the professional ranks. Last summer, Perry DellaValle was drafted in the 27th round of the MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. This year, Craig Lewis was drafted in the 33rd round by the Baltimore Orioles. All three players utilized summer ball to shine a brighter spotlight on their career.
“It’s a testament to Seton Hill’s program,” Lancaster said. “(Summer ball is) a large commitment for these kids. Some of them don’t even make it home between leaving school, coming here and going back to school. They may not see their families until Christmas. It’s great to see when those sacrifices get rewarded.”
Wells leaves a Marlins team that just broke the CPL win streak record with 14 consecutive victories.
“I’m still banking on the Marlins winning the whole thing,” Wells said. “The staff there is unreal. Everybody clicked right away. When I got there, my job was to be the goon that loosened everyone up on the team. That’s why Lancaster called me back. They called me right after the draft to ask if I wanted to come down and play again. I packed up that day and drove down the next day.”
Wells’ personality was a big reason the Marlins called him back for a second summer. Ever the jokester, the pitcher brought the joy of the game with him
when he arrived.
“He was great for that,” Lancaster said. “We know him to be honest. He’s a great personality to have around the dugout. He made a mark on these boys, and his impact won’t soon be forgotten.”
Wells’ ascension to the pros is already an against-the-odds story, but the Cloverleaf High School (Ohio) alum has overcome more than most. As a freshman at Seton Hill, Wells suffered a severe head injury and underwent an induced coma, as his family and friends wondered if he would ever play baseball again.
“They were pretty scared,” Wells said. “My dad said the doctors weren’t sure if I would have any cognitive functioning after the injury. So, when I woke up, they were pretty happy.”
The injury took place during a scrimmage at the university on Feb. 7, 2017. Wells was on the mound when he was hit in the back of the head after ducking to get out of the way of a catcher’s throw to second base. The 19-year-old crumpled to the ground, and as his teammates rushed out to meet him, he rose to his feet, wobbled his head and jogged away from the mound presumably having shaken off the hit.
Wells passed the immediate concussion protocol, but the situation turned serious a few days later when his roommate Brian Dabney found him sleeping in his dorm room. A few minutes later, Wells was having a seizure and Dabney was calling 911.
“I was in between classes,” Dabney said in an article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I went back to get a few things. I walked, he was sleeping. I just thought nothing of it. He was sleeping because he had a rough practice, whatever it was. As soon as I turned around, he started having a seizure. I’ve seen seizures before, but I knew his was different because of the head injury. It was very violent. There was a lot of discoloring in his face. I knew he needed help fast.”
According to the article, Seton Hill coach Marc Marizzaldi was right there with Wells when he first arrived at the emergency room.
“They had him stabilized, and everything was fine,” Marizzaldi said. “I was there about 15 minutes when he went into another massive seizure. The doctors took him in for another CT scan, and we kind of knew it was much more than just a bump on the head at that point. They came back, and the CT scan confirmed he had a brain bleed. They basically induced a coma. That was not only hard to witness, but it escalated.”
Doctors discussed operating on Wells, considering a craniotomy in which part of the pitcher’s skull cap would be removed to alleviate the swelling of the brain. There was talk among doctors that Wells wasn’t displaying signs of brain function. After repeated CT scans, however, it was clear the swelling of Wells’ brain wasn’t accelerating. He was slowly brought to consciousness, where his confusion took over.
“Once I woke up, I tried to rip the (breathing) tube out of my throat because I didn’t understand why it was there,” Wells aid. “All I could think about was that I was at practice a minute ago when in reality it was several days later. My parents had to tell me what had happened because I was clueless why I was there.”
Wells was told it would be six months before he could resume physical activities, but his work with Seton Hill primary care physician Dr. James Masterson had him on the field again in less than six weeks.
“When I woke up, I was a little loopy, but I could tell pretty quickly I was going to be fine,” Wells said. “Everyone was very cautious, but I wasn’t willing to change my goals.”
Wells’ goals came to fruition with his contract with the Braves. Now he is working to take the next step as he utilizes the lessons learned at lower levels.
“I’m so thankful to my coaches throughout my years for instilling wisdom and making the investment in me as a player,” he said. “I always felt pushed to be better every day. I’ve never been on a team where it was easy. I’m ready for this next chapter of my life.”