Originally Posted Online: April 28, 2013, 7:20 pm
Last Updated: April 28, 2013, 11:55 pm

Knee injury a blessing for Bandits' Wierzbicki

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By Daniel Makarewicz, danmak@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Quad Cities River Bandit's Jesse Wierzbicki (35) at bat against the Lansing Lugnuts on Thursday April 25, 2013.

A torn meniscus in his left knee presented Jesse Wierzbicki, the first baseman for the Quad Cities River Bandits, with a setback and an opportunity.

Staring at a crossroads, Wierzbicki made the most of the situation.

The injury -- suffered during his junior season at North Carolina -- forced him to switch positions, ultimately costing him from being drafted three years ago. Carrying a positive perspective in a difficult time, Wierzbicki embraced the move and eventually found it to advance his career.

"Everything happens for a reason," Wierzbicki said. "I can see how doors opened up -- not because I got hurt, but it led me to play first. I like playing first base. It all worked out."

Prior to the injury, Wierzbicki was a positional nomad. He entered high school in northwest Georgia as a shortstop before moving to catcher "as a means to go to college" during his sophomore season. In the next three seasons, he flip-flopped from catcher to shortstop.

Once he graduated, he was a permanent catcher. Sticking with the position, Wierzbicki batted a team-high .433 at Morristown, Tenn.-based Walters State Community College, which reached the Junior College World Series that year.

After his freshman season, the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the 40th round.

Wierzbicki elected to return to Walters State.

"I made the right decision," Wierzbicki said. "I was too young."

It was not until Wierzbicki arrived at North Carolina that the decision seemed regrettable. During his first season, he "was running to first base" and the left knee "gave out." A subsequent magnetic resonance imaging revealed the torn meniscus, with the diagnosis requiring him to switch positions.

Doctors told Wierzbicki he could play through the injury as long as he was not squatting as a catcher.

"If I didn't catch, it wouldn't have bothered me," Wierzbicki said. "That's why I moved to first base."

The injury and positional change provided a red flag for those who showed interesting in drafting him three years ago.

"I was having a really good season," Wierzbicki said. "I didn't get picked up. I'm pretty sure it's because of the knee -- they didn't know what the situation was going to be."

Given one more season to prove his worth, Wierzbicki flourished.

A full-time first baseman, he constructed a .996 fielding percentage and batted .301 with seven stolen bases and three triples. All that helped Wierzbicki become the Astros' 24th-round selection in the 2011 draft. Upon reaching the organization, he compiled a .981 fielding percentage and a .265 batting average at rookie-level Greeneville.

"He's got a lot of potential to be in this organization and baseball for a long time," said Bandits manager Omar Lopez, who managed Wierzbicki at Greeneville two years ago. "When you work like that, he could be in the big leagues."

Before ascending in the organization, Wierzbicki once again had to prove himself. Once camp broke last April, he remained in extended spring training for about a month.

Upon reaching full-season low-A Lexington, Wierzbicki missed time with a groin injury before settling a short-season Tri-City. In 70 games, he batted .297 with five home runs and 40 RBIs.

Playing 67 games at first base, he committed three errors with a .997 fielding percentage as Tri-City played for the New York-Penn League championship.

"That," Wierzbicki said, "was probably the most fun I've ever had playing ball."

A season later, the momentum continues. Wierzbicki has been a fixture in the clean-up position and at first base for the Bandits, belting two home runs, driving in 16 runs and committing one error in 35 chances.

Above all, Wierzbicki provides a veteran presence on a roster that's average age is 24.

"He brings character and experience," Lopez said.

Those two words epitomize Wierzbicki as a player. Injuries and setbacks have highlighted his career in recent years, but he got through each of them.

By doing that, he's ready for his career to flourish.

"I hope so," Wierzbicki said. "I try to just play each day and not try to think too much into the future. You never know what can happen. But I'm trying to stay positive and get better each day."

Bandits extra bases

Bandits this week: vs. Great Lakes (today-Tuesday); at South Bend (Thursday-Saturday); at West Michigan (Sunday)
Bandits news and notes: Inter-divisional play takes the Bandits to South Bend and West Michigan this week. The long road trip will be the club's first this season, with each being at least 250 miles from the Quad-Cities. "We'll see how they handled it," Bandits manager Omar Lopez said. "They handled Wisconsin (last week) very well. The guys are prepared." ... QC ranks sixth in the Midwest League with a 3.74 ERA, but are second in the league with 53 walks. ... Entering Sunday on a two-game home winning streak pushed the Bandits' record at Modern Woodmen Park to 5-3. ... Flooding near the park crept into the team's batting cages last week, making them unusable for a couple days. "It's been tough," Lopez said. "Because we've had good weather (lately), we've done everything on the field." All the hitting work took place during batting practice, which Lopez said was extended. ... In his last two appearances, Lance McCullers has walked the first batter he faced. Each time, the lead-off walk scored in the inning. ... QC leads the West Division with 32 stolen bases in 42 attempts.
QC alumni: High-A Palm Beach outfielder Nick Longmire had an interesting five-game stretch this week. Longmire went 9-for-23 with three doubles, four runs scored, five RBIs and three multi-hit performances. In a win on Saturday, he went 4-for-4 with two RBIs. Each time he had a multi-hit game, he followed it by going hitless. Longmire played for the Bandits in 2011 and 2012, batting .253 in 470 at-bats.
FYI: Left-hander Kyle Hunter, a 2008 Galesburg graduate, recently was promoted to Double-A Jackson. Making his debut on Saturday night, the Seattle Mariners prospect allowed one hit with two strikeouts in one inning. He previously pitched for high-A High Desert, compiling a 1-1 record and a 3.65 ERA in 12 1/3 innings.
Around the Midwest League: In extending their winning streak to six games on Saturday night, the Cedar Rapids Kernels used an 11th-inning walk-off grand slam to get the home victory over Great Lakes. However, Travis Harrison's home run was ruled a run-scoring single as umpires ruled the runners at first and second made no attempt to reach home after the celebration ensued. Cedar Rapids officially won 8-7. ... Making his Midwest League debut on Friday, Beloit Snappers shortstop Daniel Robertson went 3-for-4 during a 16-10 loss to South Bend. Rated by publications as the seventh-best prospect in the Oakland Athletics system, he finished a triple short of the cycle with three RBIs batting in the ninth spot. ... Left fielder Danry Vasquez drove in a career-high four runs as part of a 4-for-5 performance in the West Michigan's 10-1 win over Lake County on Wednesday.