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Angels' Nick Adenhart had rekindled his early promise
He bounced into the Angels clubhouse Wednesday wearing a faded Washington Redskins T-shirt and hole-pocked blue jeans, a reminder that the player who would throw six shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics that night was, really, just a kid.
Nick Adenhart had lightning in an arm that could produce 94-mph fastballs and sharp overhand curves, but he also had the baby face and soft-spoken personality of a 22-year-old who was just beginning to make a footprint in the major leagues.
The life and career of the Angels' most promising pitching prospect came to a tragic end early Thursday in Fullerton when Adenhart and two friends were killed by an alleged drunk driver whose minivan broadsided the car in which Adenhart was riding.
Only hours earlier, Adenhart had pitched the best game of his brief big-league career, blanking the A's over six innings before an Angel Stadium sellout crowd that included his father, Jim, a retired Secret Service agent who had flown in from the Baltimore area for the game.
"He summoned his father the day before and told his dad he better come here because something special was going to happen," said Scott Boras, Adenhart's agent, who broke down in tears during a Thursday news conference.
Boras was flanked by Angels Manager Mike Scioscia and General Manager Tony Reagins. Draped across the table in front of them was Adenhart's jersey, with his name and No. 34.
Scioscia recalled how, at the heart of it all, Adenhart was coming into his own.
"I can't tell you how proud we are of the growth we've seen of a youngster who in high school was a tremendous pitcher and had major arm surgery before he threw one pitch of professional baseball," he said. "And his growth as a person over the last four years was something that we were very proud of. It was a privilege to watch."
About 2,500 miles away, in the area around Adenhart's hometown of Williamsport, Md., the memories ran deeper.
"I just remember the little kid stuff we did," David Warrenfeltz, who grew up with Adenhart, told the Baltimore Sun. "One summer, we dug up my whole backyard to make a Wiffle ball field. And we cut up my mother's boots to make a catcher's mitt. Just little stuff, like riding our bikes to buy baseball cards. Normal kid stuff.
"The hardest part about this is that he was the kind of guy you always wanted around. He always had your back. As talented as he was, he was just one of the guys, real down-to-earth."
Warrenfeltz knew Adenhart from the time he was 6, and he was Adenhart's catcher at Williamsport High School. He is now a senior catcher at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
"When we were younger, he just threw so much harder than anybody else," Warrenfeltz said. "But then he developed a great curveball and command. He knew how to pitch."
Adenhart was born in Silver Spring, Md., on Aug. 24, 1986. He was a natural when it came to baseball. Although a good student with a 3.2 grade-point average, Adenhart soared when he had a baseball in his hand. By the time he was 15, he was one of the nation's top high school pitchers, and Baseball America magazine and website named him national Youth Player of the Year.
When he began his senior season at Williamsport in 2004, Adenhart was projected to be a top-five draft pick. Then disaster struck. He felt his elbow pop in a playoff game and quickly learned he would need reconstructive surgery. In the end, that didn't deter the Angels.
Dan Radcliff, the team's scout for the mid-Atlantic states, thought Adenhart was worth the risk. The Angels believed, and used their 14th-round draft pick to select the right-hander, even though he had signed a letter of intent with the University of North Carolina.
"It was just his overall demeanor, before and after the injury," Radcliff said Thursday, recalling why he felt so strongly about Adenhart. "He was convinced that with proper coaching, he would reach the major leagues. Even as a 17-year-old, he showed a maturity you don't typically see in a kid that age."
The Angels won out and sent the pitcher to Arizona, where they could oversee his lengthy rehabilitation.
By 2005, Adenhart was pitching at the Class-A level. The following year, he led the Angels farm system in victories with 15, winning a place on both the Midwest League all-star team and the U.S. national team. He won 10 games and was a Texas League all-star in 2007, prompting the Florida Marlins to ask for him as part of a proposed trade for slugger Miguel Cabrera before last season.
The Angels thought so much of Adenhart, however, they turned down the deal.
Adenhart finally made it to the big leagues last year for a three-start cameo, but struggled, giving up 12 earned runs, 18 hits and 13 walks in 12 innings.
His command problems continued at triple-A Salt Lake City, where Adenhart went 9-13 with a 5.76 earned-run average and 75 walks in 145 1/3 innings.
"It was the first year I hit some failure," the 6-foot-3 Adenhart said in a spring training interview. "I didn't have success, and I got in a rut. Early on, the problems were mechanical. Then, it got to be a mental thing. Once I hit rock bottom, I stopped worrying about results, and things got better."
Adenhart spent time over the winter studying tapes of greats such as Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Sandy Koufax, and what stood out most were their consistent deliveries.
He focused all spring on repeating his delivery and arm path, and the results were good. Adenhart went 3-0 with a 3.12 ERA in six spring starts and earned a spot in the Angels' rotation after three of their starters were placed on the disabled list.
"Mentally, I feel completely different," Adenhart said going into the season. "Last year, I'd go ball one, ball two, and I really stressed to get back in the count. Now, I trust my stuff to get back in the count or get ahead of the next guy."
Adenhart seemed more sure of himself, and Wednesday night it showed. He pitched out of bases-loaded jams in the first and fifth innings and did not allow a run in six innings. The bullpen couldn't hold the lead, and the Angels lost, 6-4.
"I was watching the game on the Internet and was so proud of him," said Angels scouting director Eddie Bane, who signed Adenhart. "Then Radcliff called this morning [with the news], and you go from way up top to the very bottom.
"You're just driving along and you start crying. It's hard. Your stomach feels empty. You're hurt. This one is different because of the way we signed him and what he went through. I really cared about this kid on and off the field."
Dean Albany, a Baltimore Orioles scout who coached Adenhart in summer and fall leagues, watched Wednesday night's game on television.
"I was talking to some scouts on the phone about how good he looked, how polished -- then you get up and you're brushing your teeth and you get a call that he's been killed in a car accident," Albany said.
"What a tragedy; he was just an incredible, incredible kid. Forget about the baseball. Just a fun-loving kid. He had a lot of talent, and he knew he had a lot of God-given talent, but he never was bigger or better than the team."
Oakland second baseman Mark Ellis could see Adenhart's confidence grow throughout Wednesday night's game.
"You could tell he was enjoying himself, you could see he was confident," Ellis said. "He should have felt good. He pitched great. It's just so awful he's gone.
"It's really, really sad. Twenty-two years old, his whole life and career ahead of him."
Dallas Braden, the A's opening-night starter Monday, had pitched against Adenhart in the minor leagues.
"I'm in shock," Braden said. "I'm at a loss. Talk about a guy who was on his way, about to take baseball by storm. He was ready to bring it to the main stage, and it was all cut so short for no reason whatsoever."
In addition to his father, Adenhart is survived by his mother, Janet. Memorial services are pending.
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.