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Adenhart lived his dream

April 11, 2009|By DAN KAUFFMAN

As usual, Nick Adenhart outdid many of us.

He needed only 22 years to live his dream. Many of us never will.

That, alone, is not enough to overcome the grief and sadness felt by all of us who were friends, teammates, classmates or simply fans of his.

But it's a start -- and a reason to rejoice.

Adenhart's life ended much too soon. But not before, in the words of agent Scott Boras, "he felt like a major leaguer," after holding the Oakland Athletics scoreless for six innings.

By all accounts, that's the feeling Adenhart always wanted to have.

It didn't come easily -- which made Wednesday all the sweeter, for him and for all of us who were rooting for him.

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Adenhart may have been a pitcher by trade, but he had the determination of a prizefighter. For every setback he encountered -- and there were two big ones -- he came back with more resolve.

After undergoing "Tommy John" reconstructive elbow surgery following his senior season at Williamsport in 2004, Adenhart was expected to miss 18 months and start his path to the major leagues in 2006. But there he was a few months early, throwing six sharp innings in an Orem Owls rookie-league playoff game to end 2005.

He steadily rose through the Los Angeles Angels' farm system, and when he showed up at spring training last year, he was determined to bypass Class AAA Salt Lake City and make the Angels' staff.

When Dustin Moseley beat him out for the fifth starter's spot, Adenhart went to Salt Lake and won his first four starts with an ERA under 1.00. That was enough to get the call, and Adenhart made his major league debut on May 1, 2008.

What started as a great day turned into the start of his second setback. Facing Oakland, Adenhart allowed five runs on three hits and five walks in two-plus innings. It wasn't the debut he had dreamed about, and it opened the floodgates on the toughest four months of his career.

Adenhart's other two starts with the Angels last year were better -- he even got a win against the Chicago White Sox -- but his overall numbers were discouraging: Twelve earned runs on 18 hits and 13 walks in 12 innings, with just four strikeouts.

The disappointment lingered and Adenhart continued to struggle back at Salt Lake, where he went 5-13 with an ERA higher than 7.00 after his demotion. Control problems -- he walked 75 in 145 1/3 innings at Salt Lake -- were the biggest issue.

But Adenhart's dream -- not just to be a big-league pitcher, but to have success on baseball's highest stage -- fueled him. He worked hard in the offseason, and according to a story by MLB.com writer Lyle Spencer, he studied his craft intensely, watching video of Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux.

The experiences of 2008 helped Adenhart grow as a pitcher, and it showed this spring, when he went 3-0 with a 3.12 ERA and walked just five hitters in 26 innings in spring training. "Nick is much different than he was even last spring training," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after Adenhart worked out of some jams in a preseason win over the Cleveland Indians. "What I like is he got out of sync with the first couple of hitters, made adjustments and got outs."

Thanks to his strong spring and a rash of injuries in the Angels' rotation, Adenhart became the team's No. 3 starter. And on Wednesday, against the same Athletics who turned his debut into a nightmare, he lived his dream in true Adenhart fashion -- he fought, he clawed, he persevered and he emerged triumphant.

Wednesday's start was a true microcosm of Adenhart's baseball odyssey, and a sign of just how far he'd come. Four of his first five innings were nail-biters. He battled out of bases-loaded jams twice, and two other jams with two runners on. When the chips were down, he made the pitches he had to, using his full arsenal. He got his five strikeouts with a high fastball, a changeup that fell off the table, and three breathtaking curveballs.

His last inning, the top of the sixth, was the best of his major league career -- three up, three down. At the end of it, walking off the Angels Stadium mound, with his father looking on from the stands, the fans gave him a standing ovation.

Nick Adenhart finally realized his dream.

A dream worth remembering.

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