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Palmer a late Major League bloomer

Palmer a late Major League bloomer

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ANAHEIM -- As he surveyed the baseball landscape, a graduate of Missouri State University with a degree in horticulture, Matt Palmer always figured he could find a place in the sun and make a career flower with sufficient care and nurturing.

He'd planted seeds, starting in 2002, in places such as Salem-Keizer, Ore.; Hagerstown, Md.; Norwich, Conn., Fresno, Calif. He entertained visions of creating something long and lasting on the mound, whether as a closer or a starter. It just never seemed to take root.

And now, remarkably -- four years after he had all but abandoned hope -- Matt Palmer has blossomed at age 30.

"I guess I'm a late bloomer," Palmer said, grinning, in anticipation of his start on Friday night for the Angels against the scorching Royals at Angel Stadium.

Along with Shane Loux, another career journeyman, Palmer has been a revelation, filling voids created in the rotation by the absences of John Lackey and Ervin Santana.

"Some guys find it at 23, like Jose Arredondo," Loux, Palmer's new buddy, said. "Not to take anything away from them, but they don't know what it's like to struggle. It's not their fault -- they're blessed.

"Guys like Matt and myself, we've had to fight for everything we've got in our career."

Palmer and Loux are in the Angels' rotation -- and they're quick to acknowledge it -- because Lackey and Santana are on the 15-day disabled list. When they return, presumably sometime this month, with Dustin Moseley also expected back in the picture, the Angels suddenly will have decisions to make.

"This is where I want to be," Palmer said. "It's a great organization, top to bottom. I'd love to stay here, but who knows?"

They came into the season with 10 career starts between them, seven by Loux, and one win, by Loux in 2003 with Detroit. Loux, at 29, is five months younger than Palmer.

A combined 1-6 with a 6.78 ERA between them, they've gone 4-0 with a 2.49 together over their past four starts, sharing them equally.

"You have to feel good for Shane, feel good for Matty," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "They've gotten more comfortable. I don't think you're going to turn a guy into a Cy Young candidate, but there are subtleties guys search three, four years for.

"These guys have used their experience well. They've waited a long time, and they're taking advantage of opportunities. They're throwing the ball to what their talent says they should."

Concerned that opportunity would never knock, Palmer almost walked away in 2005. Stuck in Norwich for the third year in a row, coming off back trouble, he wondered if he'd ever get out of Double-A.

He talked about pursuing landscape design in Springfield, Mo., his college town. But his wife, Michelle, knew where his heart was and convinced him to keep chasing that dream.

During that spring of 2006, still unsure whether his future was in baseball or landscape, Palmer developed a friendship with a neighbor, Mike Campbell, who was a baseball coach at nearby Queen Creek High School, east of Phoenix.

Campbell brought Palmer into contact with the team's head coach, John Watson, and soon Palmer was throwing batting practice to his kids and teaching his pitchers the inner game.

"He'd been hurt that year and was kind of out of it [emotionally]," Watson, now the head baseball coach at Chandler (Ariz.) High School, recalled by phone on Thursday. "He was getting kind of frustrated, didn't think he was going anywhere with the Giants.

"The first time I played catch with Matt, the first ball he threw hit me in the leg. I couldn't believe how it moved. I said, `Holy cow! How'd you do that?'

"I'd had my dream of playing in the big leagues -- I pitched and played corner infield and corner outfield through college -- but it never materialized. I kept telling him, `You still have the ability to throw. Keep going until your body tells you to quit.'

"To see what he's doing now -- Matt and Shane Loux, another friend of mine -- is amazing. These are great guys, and you have to give them a ton of credit for sticking with it. Believe me, success couldn't come to two better guys than Matt and Shane."

Through a series of events, some unlikely, some inspiring, some pure serendipity, Palmer has put himself on the baseball map. No matter what happens the rest of this season, he is showing that he can get outs in the Major Leagues with movement to both sides of the plate with a nasty cutter and a sinker that drift in opposite directions.

All Palmer has done is claim his only two starts, against the heavy-handed Tigers and the Yankees, merely outdueling one CC Sabathia in the big yard in the Bronx last Saturday.

"I was in the bullpen before the game in New York," Palmer said, "just moving around, looking around. I told myself, `You know, I love baseball.' It just came to me, and I felt good, calm."

He carried that feeling to the mound and lasted 6 1/3 innings, holding the Bronx Bombers to one earned run while the Angels were knocking out Sabathia en route to a stunning 8-4 win.

If it was a shocker to the big crowd and baseball insiders, Palmer took it in remarkably easy stride for a guy making his fifth big league start at age 30.

Palmer's '09 stats
Starts
2
W-L 2-0
ERA 3.65
WHIP 1.14
K/9 2.19

"I've always been confident I could pitch," Palmer said. "Sometimes it takes one or two adjustments, and you have a whole different feeling out there."

For Palmer, the first big change came in Triple-A Salt Lake, where he'd been sent, having signed a Minor League Angels contract, to get ready for an emergency in Anaheim with a pitching staff in disrepair.

His Salt Lake team was in a collective daze, absorbing the aftershocks of the death of their former teammate Nick Adenhart a few days earlier, when Palmer made his first start -- and got hit hard.

"That was horrible, just horrible," Palmer said. "With what had happened, I don't think anybody was in their right mind. I was all over the place."

Pitching coach Erik Bennett pulled Palmer aside in a bullpen session and recommended an adjustment in his mechanics. Voila!

"My second pitch in the bullpen, it felt right," Palmer said. "Basically, it was about using my legs to push toward the target, not my upper body.

"When I got to Anaheim, I made another adjustment with Butch [pitching coach Mike Butcher] focusing on driving more directly toward the plate. That's made a big difference, too."

As recently as last August, in San Francisco, Palmer was questioning himself. He made three starts, going 0-2 with an ERA 8.53, walking 13 hitters while striking out only three.

"I remember how respectful he was," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "I had to stop getting him to call me Mr. Bochy.

"He had good movement and he could pitch. I think guys who have logged the years that he has in the Minor Leagues learn how to pitch. I think that's the case with Matt."

Giants catcher Bengie Molina is delighted to see Palmer finding success.

"He might have had a tough time here," Molina said, "but I always thought he was good. He moved the ball -- sinkers, cutters, curveballs. It's great to see him doing well over there."

He'd come up through the Giants' system with Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez. Noah Lowry was coming back, and another lefty, Randy Johnson, was on his way to the Bay Area.

Removed from the 40-man roster, Palmer passed through waivers and was free to go anywhere.

Encouraged as always by Michelle and their three children, Palmer persevered. He traveled to Venezuela to pitch in its winter league and had success against quality hitters who seemingly grow on trees in that land.

The Angels, who stay in computer contact with every player in organized baseball and some outside its realm, looked closely at Palmer's numbers over the years, studied positive reports out of Venezuela, and decided to offer him a Minor League contract.

No team in the Majors appeared better fortified in the rotation than the Angels, but there was something about this club he liked. He decided to spurn other opportunities and sign on, knowing he was ticketed for Salt Lake.

"There was a time in my career when I was beating myself up, but I have a whole different feeling and attitude now," Palmer said. "I told my wife there was a reason I came to the Angels. I know how grateful and happy she is that I didn't give up."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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