Adenhart pitching beyond his years
Talented youngster showing maturity as he eyes rotation spot
TEMPE, Ariz. -- For the first of his 462 Major League starts, future World Series phenom and Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch had to get past a skeptical security guard at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium before he could focus his energies on Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench.
It was June 30, 1978, and a wide-eyed Welch looked exactly like the over-eager kid he was. It took a Dodgers beat writer -- this one -- to assure the gate guard that Welch was, indeed, legit. Yes, the kid did belong on the field for the second game of a doubleheader between the National League West titans. He would prove it a few hours later with six shutout innings in a victory over the Big Red Machine.
The story comes to mind as Nick Adenhart bids to nail down a spot in the Angels' rotation vacated by John Lackey, the staff ace sidelined for at least a month by a strained right triceps.
Adenhart has Welch written all over his frame and his game. He is long and lean at 6-foot-3, with a big arm and supreme faith in his ability to beat hitters with his mid-90s fastball, big curveball and developing changeup.
And, like Welch that memorable day in Cincinnati 30 years ago, Adenhart is 21 years old. When the Angels open the season in Minnesota on March 31, Nick will be one month younger than Welch was when he tied the Big Red Machine in knots in his debut as a starter.
Mike Scioscia, Adenhart's manager, knows all about Welch, having caught him in L.A. Scioscia has made it abundantly clear with past personnel decisions that he values talent highly, even at the expense of experience.
"If we feel he's ready," Scioscia said, "he's going to be a candidate. At times a young talent outplays experience."
Adenhart is doing everything he can to make sure they see it with him.
"From the beginning of camp," he said, "I felt I was competing for a job. I'd like to think I have as much of a chance as anybody else ahead of me on the depth chart."
With Lackey and Kelvim Escobar (shoulder inflammation) sidelined, Adenhart is in the mix for the fifth rotation spot behind Jered Weaver, Jon Garland, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana.
"Scioscia always talks about being able to trust you," Adenhart said. "For me, that means being able to trust me to throw strikes and work deep in a game -- working fast, throwing strikes, keeping your defense on its toes."
Adenhart is learning quickly the value of early-count outs.
"At this level, it's about developing the efficiency to go deep in games, pounding the strike zone with good pitches," he said.
When he talks about reserving secondary deliveries for the second and third times around a lineup, he sounds like a guy who's been doing this for years.
In his four Cactus League outings this spring, he has walked only one hitter while striking out seven in 12 2/3 innings, with a 4.26 ERA.
"He has an incredible future," Scioscia said. "Where he is now is something we're going to pay attention to and talk about in coming weeks. We don't want to rush him, but his talent will allow him to play at this level."
On Saturday, replacing Lackey against the Diamondbacks, Adenhart had what Scioscia called "the best stuff he's had all spring" in four innings. A three-run homer by Jeff Salazar came on a first-pitch fastball after a pair of two-out singles.
"He came back [after the homer] and made all his pitches and wasn't fazed by it," Scioscia said. "That's Nick's makeup."
Teammate Brandon Wood observed that quality when Adenhart faced Brazil for Team USA in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Cuba in 2006.
"You look at Nick -- great stuff, great fastball, great curveball -- and the thing that separates him is you don't get to him mentally," Wood said. "He doesn't come in and throw his glove after he gives one up -- he comes back strong and starts dealing again.
"When we were in Cuba, playing very intense baseball, he was the same. If he was nervous at any point, you couldn't see it. It's just something inside him -- he's confident but not in a cocksure way. He knows he's got it."
He was Baseball America's Youth Player of the Year in 2003 in Williamsport, Md., one of the premier high school talents in the nation by all evaluations.
But Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in high school left him available in the 14th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. The Angels snapped him up, signed him to a $710,000 contract and waited for him to heal.
Adenhart pitched 14 games in 2005, 25 in 2006 and 26 last year. He is 28-15 with a 3.11 ERA in 361 Minor League innings.
He wasn't born when Welch blew down Reggie Jackson in an epic World Series showdown in 1978 at Dodger Stadium, but Adenhart has an appreciation of past gunslingers.
Growing up in Cal Ripken Jr. land, Adenhart made treks to Baltimore to watch the legendary shortstop while keeping his eyes on pitchers who were determined to frustrate the Orioles' shortstop.
"I was a big fan of the game, and I always liked guys who threw hard with good movement -- Kevin Brown, David Cone, guys like that," Adenhart said. "I'd watch how they worked hitters. With a guy like Cone, late in his career with the Yankees, he had all that creativity, different arm angles."
His manager can tell Adenhart all about Bob Welch, a comet whose career arc would be a fine one for Adenhart to follow.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.