Former battery mates living the dream

Seven years ago, it was routine for Collin Balester and Hank Conger to discuss all aspects of the game on the Huntington Beach High baseball diamond.

Balester was a star on the mound for the Oilers and during the final two years of his prep career, it was Conger who provided the target for his pitches behind the plate. At the end of that 2003-04 school year — which included a successful 2004 season for the Oilers — Balester was drafted by the then-Montreal Expos. Conger, meanwhile, was getting ready to play summer ball before starting his junior year at Huntington.

The two have continually kept in contact through the years, keeping abreast of how the other was doing as each tried to carve out professional baseball careers. Monday turned out to be special for the pair: it marked the first time that Conger's and Balester's teams would meet on a major league baseball field.

Balester and the Washington Nationals were in town to start a three-game series with Conger and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium. The Angels won the opener Monday, 4-3, on Maicer Izturis' walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning. They also took Tuesday's game, scoring eight runs in the bottom of the eighth to pull away to an 11-5 victory.

They were able to do some catching up during batting practice and when Conger was catching in the bullpen, and also met up before Tuesday's game.

"We do our normal 'check-up' a couple of times a month, asking, 'How are you doing?' 'How's your game going?' " said Balester, a right-handed relief pitcher who was making his first appearance at Angel Stadium as a major leaguer.

"It was really cool to be on the same field with Collin," Conger said. "You see guys you know when you play travel ball and minor ball, but I was thinking before the (Monday) game how weird it was to have two guys out of the same high school, facing off against each other. It was pretty awesome to be in that moment."

Neither local product played in Monday's game but both competed Tuesday. Conger went one for three and hit his fourth home run of the season, a two-run shot. He also walked.

Conger hit a 2-0 fastball off Ryan Mattheus with one out in the bottom of the eighth. It was his first career home run at Angel Stadium and the first time that his family, parents Yun and Eun and brother Adrian, 21, witnessed him hitting a homer as a big leaguer.

"It felt great to finally get that monkey off my back," Conger joked Wednesday. "My family had teased me that I hadn't yet hit a home run at home. It was awesome that they got to see me hit it."

Balester didn't have similar success. He was tagged with the loss after allowing two hits, a walk and two earned runs in 1/3 inning of work. Balester was lifted in the sixth, two batters before Conger was set to bat.

The 25-year-old Balester, who lives in Dana Point in the offseason, had better luck Saturday, earning his first win of the season in Chicago when the Nationals beat the White Sox, 9-5, in 14 innings. Through Tuesday, Balester was 1-1 with a 4.66 earned-run average in seven appearances.

Conger, 23, was hitting .230 through Tuesday and driven in 15 runs in 135 at bats. Like many Angels, he's struggled at home, hitting just .186, but he's fared much better on the road, putting up an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .857. Three of his four home runs have also come away from Angel Stadium.

Balester was a three-year letterman at Huntington Beach and was drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 draft by the Expos. He played four minor league seasons and made his major league debut with the Nationals on July 7, 2008.

Conger was a four-year letter winner at Huntington and played in every varsity game, Oilers Coach Benji Medure said. He set the school's home run record and was an Aflac Al-American. He was drafted in 2006 by the Angels and went on to become a minor league (A, AA) All-Star and was the 2010 Futures Game MVP. He played his first Major league game with the Angels on Sept. 6, 2010.

Medure, who coached both players, attended the first two games of the series. He said the Angels "donated" tickets to the Huntington Beach entourage and that more than 250 current and former Huntington Beach baseball players, parents and other friends attended Monday's game.

Medure and Huntington Beach assistant coach Joel Bernstein also attended Tuesday's game, adding that he and Bernstein got to be on the field during batting practice.

"To say that I am proud to have both of them playing in the big leagues against each other is an understatement," Medure said. "I still get the chills watching them on TV. Both of them are extremely hard workers with great character and they deserve the opportunity to play at the major league level. Two high school teammates facing each other doesn't happen often in the big leagues.

"People ask me who I will be pulling for and I don't answer that question. I have to stay neutral, but I guess I would want to have Hank hit the ball hard right at somebody, and they catch it. Then I win both battles."

Both Balester and Conger have traveled the long road from their Huntington Beach High days to reach their present destination. Both say they will always have a special bond as Oiler teammates.

As Balester and Conger talked on the field prior to the start of Monday's game, both realized that they were living "the dream."

"We really are," Conger said. "For me, one of the biggest things is thinking about all that I've gone through to get here. The injuries, playing in the minor leagues, the hotels and bus rides, remembering what it was like to be in 120-degree heat in Arizona. When you make it to the big leagues, you have to sit back for a second and think of the journey."

"Walking across the field at Angel Stadium was almost surreal," Balester said. "Having attended numerous games there as a kid, and now being on the field as a player, is really cool. As a kid, you think it's a long shot to happen, but you dream about it.

"To be in the big leagues is a dream come true. To be there, playing at this level, is special. You have to work hard every day and cherish it all. Anytime I go to a major league ballpark and don't have to pay for a ticket, is a good day, in my book."

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