Kelvim Escobar’s first experience as a relief pitcher in a big-game setting was unforgettable. To this day, it’s one of his enduring memories.
“I was 21 years old, just getting started with the Blue Jays,” Escobar recalled, going back to 1997 in his mind. “It was Roger Clemens’ first game back in Boston after going to Toronto, and everybody was going crazy that day.
“I was so very nervous when I came in. I was always a starter, and I’d pitched in two games before this. It was amazing, the energy of that crowd. Roger had 16 strikeouts [and no walks] and we had a 3-1 lead. I was so pumped up I was throwing 100 miles an hour.”
Escobar went to a 1-2 count against Wil Cordero, a right-handed hitter, and got him to fly out to right field. That was the only hitter he faced that day. It took three more Jays relievers to finish the job for Clemens and preserve the victory.
Now that he knows he’s going back to the bullpen — his body having informed him in one exercise in Detroit on the recent road trip that anything beyond 75 pitches brought back the pain in his surgically repaired right shoulder — Escobar will be leaning on memories like that one to get back into a reliever’s frame of mind.
Escobar, who will begin plalying catch on Monday in San Francisco with the hope of getting on a mound soon afterward. He could become a major force in the eighth inning with Scot Shields — master of that role for the past five seasons with the Angels — out for the season with knee surgery set for Tuesday.
“It’s nothing new for me,” Escobar said. “I’ve done it before — setting up, closing, middle relief, all of it. It’s different than starting, a different challenge.
“I think once my arm is [conditioned] to relieving, I’ll be in good shape. I’ve had no problems up to 75 pitches, and I won’t need that many in the bullpen.
“It would be great for the team if I’m able to pitch down there. If I can work up to pitching back-to-back games, it would take pressure off a lot of guys. I’m very versatile. If they needed me for two or three innings, I could even do that. But probably the best thing would be one inning of my best stuff.”
Escobar’s best stuff, in any role, is about as good as it gets. He was throwing consistently in the mid-90s in Detroit on June 6, pitching five strong innings (two earned runs) but picking up the loss because Tigers right-hander Edwin Jackson was dominant.
Along with his four-seam heat, Escobar can move a two-seam fastball down in the strike zone and keep hitters guessing with a curveball, split-fingered fastball and first-rate changeup.
Coming out of the bullpen, he’ll probably rely almost exclusively on the two fastballs, changeup and curve. He’ll have no need for a slider that can cause arm strain.
“Eskie’s a great pitcher,” Shields said. “He and Darren [Oliver] are great for all the young guys on the staff with their knowledge and leadership. When Eskie’s feeling good and on his game, he’s overpowering. If he can be that guy, we’ll be in good shape.”
Escobar notched 38 of his 59 career saves in 2002 with the Jays, making a career-high 76 appearances and finishing 68 games. He last worked out of the bullpen in 2005, making nine relief appearances in a season hindered by elbow issues.
Nick Adenhart grinned in that shy, off-hand manner of his and told me he liked my sweater. I thanked him and told him I’d try to find one just like it for him. He might have thought I was kidding, but I was serious. It was going right to the top of my to-do list.
I wanted to go over to his locker after the group interview on Wednesday night at Angel Stadium for a few private minutes with him, to let him know how happy I was for him. I’d developed a lot of affection for him these past few years, and it had been painful to watch him struggle when he came up last May, searching for the right stuff and not finding it. He wasn’t quite ready, maybe, but he had complete confidence that he would figure it out. I could see that. I wasn’t worried about Nick. He had courage and confidence to go with the tools. He was going places. It was just a matter of time.
Now, in his fourth Major League start, he’d shut out the A’s for six innings, using not just his physical gifts but the knowledge and intelligence he’d acquired over a winter of intently studying his craft. But I had other interviews to do and a story to go write, so I did what I do. I’d have a nice sit-down with Nick next chance I got.
A few hours later, having pitched a game that I was convinced was going to be his springboard to a long, successful career and certain stardom, he was struck down in one of those senseless accidents. Nick Adenhart, who I’d grown to care so much about, was gone.
I’ve been doing this, writing professionally about athletes and the games they play, for four decades. But I am not capable enough to express my grief over the news of Nick’s death. It is too deep, too profound. He was not just another talented young ballplayer with a big arm and a big future. He was a wonderful young man, one I’d have been proud to call a son. Or a son in law.
I have two daughters, no sons. In my travels as a sportswriter across the map over the years I have forged bonds with athletes from different angles and perspectives. There was a time, when I was young and full of life, that I socialized with some guys generous enough and adventurous enough to welcome me into their worlds. We had some good times.
As I got older, the relationship with young athletes evolved into something more paternal. With some athletes, such as Nick, I began to feel protective, as I would a son. There were times when they would confide in me and if they asked, I would offer advice, counsel. It had nothing to do with my work, really. It was about making connections with people I cared about. Nick certainly was one of these people, along with at least a dozen other young Angels.
Nick and I would have brief talks, occasionally a long one. This spring, stretching out at a table outside the clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, he opened up about a variety of subjects. There was a shy quality about him I always found endearing, and I felt honored that he would confide in me.
The story I ended up writing was about how he’d spent the winter studying the masters on video, such legends as Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Nick was completely absorbed in becoming as good as he could be. He dreamed about being a big-league pitcher since he was 8 or 9 years old, and here he was, on the threshold.
It meant everything to him. I don’t mind admitting I was pulling hard for him.
Writing through tears is never easy. I weep for his family, for friends and teammates past and present, for anyone who had the good fortune to get to know Nick Adenhart.
He was a prince of a young man. I’m feeling empty and lost today knowing I won’t be having any more talks with Nick, and that I won’t go searching for another sweater like the blue/green one he took a fancy to on the night he showed that he had the right stuff to be a great Major League pitcher for many years to come.