Jad Prachniak started searching for insight into the West Chester University baseball team after he was hired in 2011 to be the head coach. He sought out anyone — opposing coaches, school administrators, athletic department staffers — who could tell him something about the team he was taking over.
“There was a coach in our league. Matt Jones at Shippensburg,” Prachniak said. “He was giving me a quick rundown. ‘You have some talented players and basically you have Chase Utley playing second base for you.’”
Four years earlier, Joey Wendle was a 5-foot-7, 150-pound infielder at Avon Grove High School fighting for college attention. And now he was “Chase Utley” for a West Chester team that would win the national championship that season.
It was an uphill battle from Avon Grove to West Chester, and Wendle’s road did not get any easier after he left Chester County to chase his major-league dream.
Wendle’s path will lead him Tuesday night to the World Series after he helped power the Tampa Bay Rays to the American League pennant.
He was an undersize high schooler, played at a Division II college, and climbed the minor-league ladder for six seasons. But now Wendle is one of the most valuable players for one of baseball’s best teams.
And it all comes back to the comparison to Utley. Wendle was West Chester’s best hitter and everyday second baseman, but an opposing coach’s labeling him “Chase Utley” was more than just complimenting his swing and his defense. The comparison was a way to describe Wendle’s work ethic, focus, and competitiveness that fueled him from the stickball games in his New London Township neighborhood to the wrestling mats, soccer fields, and baseball diamond at Avon Grove High to West Chester University and now to baseball’s biggest stage.
“Chase Utley is the perfect example of a blue-collar ballplayer in Philadelphia just going out and doing it every day. Finding a way to get the job done no matter what. So in some ways, it’s a great comparison,” said Wendle’s oldest brother, Andy, who played at Villanova. “But Joey is his own player. He plays his own way. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we grew up rooting for Chase Utley. I think there’s definitely some similarities.”
“That’s just how we were taught to play. It wasn’t necessarily like we were following Chase Utley. My dad coached us all coming up and there weren’t two ways to play the game. There was the right way and there was every other way. I think it just so happens that Joey and Chase both do a lot of things the right way.”
No longer a secret
Wendle hit a growth spurt before arriving on West Chester’s campus. He started as a freshman for a team that reached the College World Series and hit .399 in his senior year to lead the Golden Rams to a national title. Wendle was no longer undersize (he’s now listed as 6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and he was no longer a secret.
A coach from Duke watched him during the College World Series and told Prachniak that Wendle would have been the best second baseman in the ACC.
“Watching him his freshman year, not only his talent but the competitiveness, the toughness, the intensity, I saw it every time,” said Greg Mamula, the former West Chester coach who recruited Wendle from Avon Grove. “To get this far and to where he is, you have to have that mental toughness, focus, and determination. You can see it now. That’s why he’s so easy to root for.”
“If you ever watched him practice, it is the most authentic thing. He doesn’t take a rep off,” Prachniak said. “I don’t want to call anything ‘false hustle,’ but he’s never doing it just for the show of ‘Look at me. I’m playing hard.’ No, I truly believe that’s ingrained in him. It’s the only way that he’s going to play baseball.”
The Cleveland Indians selected Wendle in the sixth round in 2012 and traded him two years later to Oakland. He reached the majors in 2016 with the Athletics, but they removed him a year later from the 40-man roster and traded him in December 2017 to Tampa Bay. It took some time, but Wendle was finally in the right place.
The Rays have built a contender by mining players like Wendle, who were overlooked by other organizations, and giving them a chance to succeed. They had the third-lowest payroll in baseball this season but finished with the second-most wins. They’ve used the athletic Wendle as a super-utility player after he was almost exclusively a second baseman with Cleveland and Oakland.
Wendle played in 58 of the team’s 60 regular-season games and led the Rays with a .286 batting average despite not wearing batting gloves or having a set position. He played 20 games at second base, 28 games at third, and 10 games at shortstop. It is how the Rays win. They use players at multiple positions, lean on their bullpen, and maximize the talent of a roster built by a keen front office.
Wendle registered the final out of the American League division series against the Yankees by snagging a 109.6-mph line drive. Four nights later, he hit a two-run single to give the Rays their third win in the ALCS against the Astros.
Anything to help the Rays win
He will likely start Tuesday at third base in Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Astros manager Dusty Baker compared Wendle defensively last week to Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, universally considered among the greatest defensive third basemen in baseball history. Not bad for a player without a set place to play.
“I don’t mind that I’m not a starting second baseman, or starting third baseman, or starting shortstop. I take pride in the fact that I can fill in at all three of those positions.”
“To me, it’s just the mentality of ‘Where can I help the team win today?’ Like where do I feel the most valuable to them?,” Wendle said in a pregame call during the ALCS. “I don’t mind that I’m not a starting second baseman, or starting third baseman, or starting shortstop. I take pride in the fact that I can fill in at all three of those positions. ... It’s a role that I’ve been doing for a few years now and it’s one that I’ve grown pretty comfortable with. I take pride in that. It’s something I’ve embraced.”
Wendle’s competitiveness, work ethic, and focus — the traits that got him labeled in college as “Chase Utley” — can be traced back to the stickball games in the front yard of his childhood home in Chester County. There were three home run lines: a deep one for Andy Wendle, one a bit shorter for the next oldest brother, Ben, and a short line for Joey and his buddies.
“But then we had to keep moving Joey’s line back. We couldn’t let him keep hitting home runs,” said Ben Wendle, who played at St. Joseph’s. “I think that’s what drove him. He always wanted to win. He was tiny. He wasn’t big. He grew late. We had some good talent in the neighborhood and he just had to keep up. He ended up keeping up.”
This month the stage has been bigger for Wendle than the front lawn, but the desire to win remains the same. He’s still just as competitive.
Ben Wendle texted his brother after his Game 3 heroics to congratulate him and tell him to keep going. Joey Wendle texted back and told his older brother how much fun he was having.
Nearly two decades ago, Andy and Ben Wendle were modifying the rules in stickball to give their little brother a tougher challenge.
On Tuesday night, they’ll watch him play in the World Series.
“He’s never had a problem with being the underdog,” Ben Wendle said. “He doesn’t know how to sulk. He just keeps grinding and keeps his wheels turning. It’s really cool to see his hard work paying off for him.”