PHILADELPHIA -- He has had more nationally televised face time in three days of baseball than in his previous 25 years of life.
Cory Wade laughs.
“It’s actually easier now than when nobody was watching,” he said.
The Dodgers’ unlikely setup reliever, who returns to the stage tonight when his team opens the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, has spent a career with nobody watching.
At Broad Ripple High in inner-city Indianapolis, Wade played in a city park where there were infield divots, outfield ditches and no stands.
“As you can imagine, we didn’t draw a lot of fans,” longtime friend Paul Richardson said.
At Kentucky Wesleyan, the only school to recruit Wade, their travels took them to places where they would play in snowstorms.
“Not many fans there, either,” Richardson said.
During five minor league seasons spanning six cities, Wade estimates there were times he played in front of “15-20" people.
“One time, at a Gulf Coast League game, my wife and I were the only ones there,” his father Everett said.
During all this time, Wade learned to pitch under a pressure that he says is far greater than prime-time Wrigley Field.
“When there’s only a couple of people in the stands, if someone is chirping at you, you can hear everything he’s saying,” Wade said. “It sounds funny but, up here, it’s easier because all the noise blends together and you can’t really hear anything.”
He may not hear us, but we can sure hear him, in the frustration of opposing batters who can’t find their rhythm against his changing speeds, in the promise of a championship that only a guy in the bullpen can carry.
Nobody survives this time of year without a solid setup reliever, a strong-shouldered soul to carry them to the promised land that is the closer.
Less than six months removed from double-A Jacksonville, Wade has become that guy.
“Can you believe it?” Richardson said. “Back home here, we’re watching him on TV and it’s like, ‘Is that really him?’ ”
Yes, that’s him, the guy with the piercing stare and the pendulum-like right arm, swinging back and forth, back and forth, mirroring his fluctuating career.
“I haven’t thought about where I’ve been,” he said. “This time of year, you can only be thinking about where you are going.”
If he keeps this up, he is going from Dodgers anonymity to a place in Dodgers history.
After finishing the season with a 1.45 earned-run average in his last 15 games, Wade appeared in all three playoff games against the Chicago Cubs, giving up one run in 3 2/3 innings, striking out two and walking none.
Each time, he kept the lead safe. Twice, that lead was picked up by closer Jonathan Broxton, whose power is like a shot of cold water to the faces of batters who had been splashing around in Wade’s finesse.
Manager Joe Torre trusts him now. The eighth inning belongs to Wade now.
Not bad considering, when his professional career began, he was thrilled to belong to anybody.
The Dodgers drafted him in the 10th round as a college junior after scout Marty Lamb loved not only his mechanics, but his mind-set.
“I asked him if there was a certain round by which he needed to be drafted or else he would return to school,” Lamb said. “He told me we could draft him anywhere in Rounds 1 through 50.”
The amateur draft is 50 rounds. Lamb was sold.
“This was a kid that really wanted to play,” he said. “This kid really wanted to be a Dodger.”
After moving slowly through the Dodgers system, Wade increasingly impressed with his consistency. He didn’t throw amazing strikes, but he threw strikes, again and again and again.
This spring, outsiders didn’t consider him among the Dodgers’ top prospects, but the Dodgers knew better,
In April, they called him all the way up from Jacksonville, skipping triple-A Las Vegas, because they temporarily needed an arm that, yeah, threw strikes.
He called his father at 3 a.m. with the news. His father was furious.
“I said, ‘Son, why are you calling me in the middle of the night to tell me you were called up to Las Vegas?’ ” Everett said. “He said, ‘No, Dad, I’m going to the Dodgers.’ And I said, ‘You’re going where?’ ”
Wade flew all day from Huntsville, Ala., to Los Angeles. At the same time, his parents in Indianapolis were ordering the baseball package from their cable TV network.
“I thought there was no way he would pitch that first night after flying all day, but I didn’t want to take a chance,” Everett said.
Just hours after landing at LAX, he pitched in that first game, throwing a scoreless ninth inning.
Family and friends flooded his cellphone with voice mails and texts. He happily drove his rental car to a Pasadena hotel.
Six months later, refusing to take anything for granted, he is still driving a rental car, and still living in that hotel room, now with his wife Mikaela and infant daughter Maaya.
“You never know in this game,” he said. “Every day you have to prove yourself.”
He still remembers when nobody was watching, so much that he was startled five days ago when somebody recognized him at a taco restaurant.
“The woman at the counter called my first name with my order, and somebody said, ‘Cory Wade, is that you?’ ” he said.
Through years of chunky fields and empty seats and snowstorms, that used to be a legitimate question.
Right before our blinking eyes, Cory Wade has pitched it into a rhetorical one.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.