By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
How hard is it?
Making it to the big leagues is an incredible feat, and an extremely difficult one. It would be hard to overestimate just what it takes to accomplish such a thing and probably only the elite group who have ever done it can really understand.
That’s what makes it all that much more amazing that Adam Loewen is back again, in the majors for the third time, and essentially having done so as three very different players. The 31-year-old is now pitching with the Philadelphia Phillies, after making his debut on the hill with the Baltimore Orioles over nine years ago and then returning as a hitter in September five years after that with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“He’s a gifted athlete, and especially in baseball,” said Phillippe Aumont, who spent time with Loewen earlier this season in Triple-A Lehigh Valley. “He’s determined to play for a long time. He’s not done with it. For him, yes he was grinding, but he was just determined to do it and he did it. That’s credit to him. It’s not easy at all.
“Think about it, he was a big prospect and made it to the big leagues, and then he just decided to hit and he made it to the big leagues as a hitter. Some guys have done that, but then he decided hitting isn’t working for me anymore, I’ll pitch again, not knowing if my arm is going to hold up. And it did. He’s back. I hope he sticks. I really hope he stays up there.”
After being selected fourth overall in the 2002 draft – the highest Canadian-born player ever chosen – Loewen spent parts of three seasons in the majors with the Orioles.
With two stress fractures over two years in his pitching elbow, the southpaw realized that maybe the mound was not in his future. He picked up a bat and spent the majority of his hitting time in the minors with the Blue Jays and New York Mets before he earned a September call up, after three years between stints in the big leagues.
Last summer, with an understanding that hitting wasn’t going to work for him anymore, the native of Surrey, BC, got back on the hill. Five years away from pitching, the pain and issues he had once experienced were gone. And after a partial season last year to get his pitching feet wet, Loewen spent this year more focused than ever before on making it back to the highest level.
“I saw a guy who was determined to go back to the big leagues,” Aumont said. “Talking to him, I asked him, ‘Have you had enough? What are your thoughts on the game? You’ve been through so much, you’ve been up there and you got hurt, and somebody was basically telling you that you’re not going to be able to pitch anymore.’
“Then he took another route and got up there, but it was up and down a little bit, and then he decided to pitch again. I said, ‘Wow, you really want to play [forever]. He said, ‘I’m going to play as long as I can. I love this game.’”
Starting the year with the IronPigs, there were some things Loewen had to work on before he could move any further up the ladder. Over 11 games and 17 1/3 innings in April and May, the left-hander allowed seven runs on 18 hits, and walked 20 batters with only 13 strikeouts.
It took a step backwards – a demotion to Double-A Reading at the end of the May for two weeks – before he turned it around and eventually ended up in Philadelphia.
“It had to be tough for him,” Aumont, a native of Gatineau, Que., said. “I mean, it was tough for me just to see it, to see him go. And he came back and he was completely different. The ball was coming out of his hand and they were just flame balls. It was unreal.
“He was throwing hard, he was throwing strikes, and everything looked much better. It was pretty cool. I only saw him for a couple days before I left, when he came back, but it was cool. Whatever he went through, I don’t think a lot of guys are going to do what he did.”
Loewen was a changed man.
After being traded to the Phillies from the Milwaukee Brewers organization early this year, Chris Leroux joined Loewen and Aumont in Lehigh Valley. Leroux and Loewen were first teammates almost a decade-and-a-half ago, when they suited up together for the Canadian Junior National Team as 16-year-olds. The lefty was good then, but what the Mississauga, Ont., native saw this year was something incredible.
“Adam has been pretty resilient with everything that’s happened this year,” Leroux said. “Being sent to Double-A early on is something that a former big leaguer rarely takes well. He went down there and came back, and honestly was the best pitcher I’ve ever seen. He made good hitters look like they should be playing little league.
“His velocity was up, I know that, but there was something about his delivery, whether he was hiding the ball or the movement on the ball, that was making the hitters look horrible. There was a point when he came back [to Lehigh Valley] that everyone was just looking at each other like, ‘Who is this guy? Where did this come from?’
Not in a way that we didn’t think he could pitch like that, but just how quickly it happened and how dominant he had become in such a short period of time.”
In Reading, Loewen joined a Fightin’ Phils roster that he had been a part of to finish last season, a place everyone thought he had moved beyond. But the 18-day change of scenery threw gasoline on the fire that Loewen had ignited when he decided to try pitching once more.
“I was happy to have him last year,” Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. “He was kind of getting his feet wet, and you could see how he was getting better and better every start. Then this year when we decided to put him in the [bullpen] out of spring training, a lot of people thought his best opportunity to make it to the major leagues was going to be out of the bullpen.
“He obviously had his struggles up there [in Lehigh Valley] but his numbers weren’t bad – he just had too many walks. When you look at a major league manager or a major league organization, they’re not going to bring a guy up no matter how good your numbers are, if you’re walking a bunch of guys. So he had to come down here. And he said it, it was a wake-up call.
“He had to make some adjustments and he came down here and to his credit – the guy works as hard as anybody – he came down here and worked hard and made a couple adjustments and went up there and jumped on an opportunity. He got put in the closer role for a little while and ran with it. It’s great.”
When Loewen returned to the IronPigs roster, he got into 22 games before his call up. Over that span he threw 28 2/3 innings, and allowed four runs – all of them in one appearance and three on just one pitch that left the yard. He notched 10 saves, walked 12 and struck out 47. His final 15 1/3 frames were scoreless.
“From the outside looking in, I would say, ‘Wow,’” Wathan said. “But it doesn’t surprise me, not knowing him. Especially when you think about it, and he’s obviously not doing it for the money. Baltimore gave him a sizeable amount of money.
“He’s doing it because he loves the game and it’s what he knows. So knowing him, it doesn’t surprise me at all. He doesn’t have quit in him. He’s a guy who will go back to Double-A and hit, then he’ll go back to Double-A and pitch, and I’m very happy for him. He’s one of my favourites. He’s a good guy.”
Said Leroux: “He’s one of the very few guys that you’re truly happy for. One of the best and genuinely nicest people I’ve met, and he just so happens to throw 96 miles an hour from the left side. Fifteen years later, here we are … I can’t wait to see him dominate the bigs just like he’s dominated literally every hitter he’s faced this year in Triple-A.”
What Loewen has done is nothing short of amazing to all those around him, and he isn’t finished.
“Everything,” Aumont said of what’s impressed him the most. “I think I would have been home a long time ago. I asked him, ‘Aren’t you just tired?’ and he’s not. He’s still young, he’s 31. I said, ‘You’ve been through so much, so much rehab, and you went through a second minor league career, I would just be drained.’
“And he said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m not done.’ I was impressed by his response, how quick it came and it was just honest. He’s not done.”