BUFFALO – Five years ago, Adam Loewen thought his career as a pitcher was over. A painful crack in his elbow was being held together by a screw. His prized left arm, the one that made him a first-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles, had failed him.
But baseball is a funny game. Loewen, who once walked off the mound and re-invented himself as a home run-slugging outfielder, is now pitching again, against all odds.
This past weekend, Loewen was called out of the bullpen for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs against the Buffalo Bisons in front of 8,178 people at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, PA. He faced a dozen batters and pitched two-plus shutout innings for the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm team.
The week before, Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage used Loewen on back-to-back nights in Buffalo against and he shut down his old team, the Toronto Blue Jays’ triple-A affiliate.
At 31, the Surrey, B.C. native – still the highest-ever drafted Canadian-born player – is working on a third chance in baseball by taking the unusual route of starter-turned-outfielder-turned reliever.
“I think I can pitch at the big-league level again. If I get that call, my expectations are to be ready, and I think I’m ready right now,” he said.
“If it happens, I’ll feel really lucky. But I really don’t like to look at it like that. I just want to enjoy my time here.”
Loewen is enjoying himself. In seven relief appearances for the Iron Pigs this month, he’s allowed just two earned runs over 11.2 innings for a 1.54 ERA. His command remains a work in progress – he has issued 16 free passes this year — but his fastball is hitting the low 90s and he’s flashing a biting curveball.
If he continues to progress, Loewen could become a valuable left-handed arm for a Phillies bullpen that includes former Blue Jay Dustin McGowan. So how did he wind up here?
In the late fall of 2013, he was riding the bench for the Caribes de Anzoategui in the Venezualan Winter League, batting just .227 and facing the prospect of being unemployed by spring.
Loewen began toying with an idea – what if he could try pitching again? The pain in his elbow, five long years removed from a debilitating stress fracture, was now gone.
“I was getting older, and I just had a feeling it was going to be tough to get a job as a position player. So I just made up a plan in the back of my mind to start doing some long-tossing,” he said.
He’d already accomplished a remarkable comeback once before.
Way back in 2002, Loewen was the can’t-miss Canadian prospect chosen as the No. 4 overall pick by Baltimore, ahead of the likes of Cole Hamels, Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain and Nick Swisher.
He made it to the big leagues in just two and a half years. Soon afterwards the injuries began. By 2008, rarely pitching without pain, he decided to pick up a bat and start all over again.
Two years after signing with the Blue Jays as an outfielder, Loewen was called up to Toronto in September 2011 and had five hits in his first five games, including a home run against his former team, the Orioles.
Loewen’s second stint in the majors was short-lived, however. After two more years in the minors with the Mets and Blue Jays, he never again got a taste of the big leagues.
In the spring of 2014, back from Venezuela, a few major-league scouts came to watch the Canadian pitch near his home in Arizona. But he says his arm needed more time.
Then, that April, Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams for Baseball Canada, got the former first-rounder one more shot. Hamilton had run into Phillies president Pat Gillick in Florida and mentioned that Loewen was pitching again.
Gillick called Loewen directly and asked if he’d like to show the team his stuff. A Phillies scout was dispatched to a nearby high school diamond. He confirmed Loewen was indeed pitching again, and now pitching well.
“That day was really good,” he said. “Before that, my arm wasn’t really ready.”
The Phillies signed the six-foot-six Canadian to a two-year minor league deal and sent him to their class-A farm team in Clearwater, Fla. then to their double-A club in Reading, PA where he pitched to a 3.26 ERA.
After years as a position player, Loewen says he’s a smarter pitcher now that he’s returned to the mound. He’s able to think like a hitter, and exploit that knowledge in particular counts.
“It’s helped me in terms of knowing what to look for, what kind of swings you get, and the thought process behind it. That gives me information for my next pitch,” he said. “But it still comes down to executing the pitches.”
This spring, Loewen was converted into a reliever and promoted to triple-A, where he found to his surprise he was loving pitching again.
“I was always kind of bitter towards it, because I thought my arm gave out on me,” he said. “I kind of forgot how much I enjoyed being on the mound. Getting a second chance to do it, and having my arm feel healthy, it’s a real blessing. I don’t take it for granted anymore.”
As for pitching out of the bullpen, that’s fine by him. Loewen says it wasn’t his choice to move to relief, but he enjoys getting into games on back-to-back days, kind of like a position player.
For now, he just plans to keep pitching effectively. And if the call-up to the big club comes, Loewen says he’ll do everything he can to cherish the opportunity. For the third time around.