ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The makeshift memorial in front of Angel Stadium’s main entrance is about the size of a pitcher’s mound now. Hats, stuffed animals, sparkling lights, rosary beads, inscribed baseballs and hand-lettered signs are all arranged in a neat circle around an easel that holds a painting of Nick Adenhart in mid-throw.

In the Angels’ clubhouse, Adenhart’s locker is largely still how he left it on the night of April 8, from cap to shoes. His image and No. 34 adorn the outfield wall, where Jered Weaver communes before each start with the new friend who was planning to room with him this season.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Weaver said. “You’re never going forget a guy like that. When something like that happens, it makes you take into consideration that not every day is promised, and you have to go out there, every out, and give it everything you have. It’s a tough thing.”

Adenhart, the Los Angeles Angels’ 22-year-old pitcher who died in a car accident during the season’s opening week, is a constant presence even in October for everyone around the club, which won the AL West last month to earn a first-round playoff matchup with the Boston Red Sox.

His death, along with two friends in a crash police say was caused by a drunk driver, staggered the Angels on and off the field, before ultimately elevating their remarkable season. Whether the Angels finally get past Boston or not, they feel they’ve honored Adenhart’s memory by rising from the tragedy.

“After he passed, for two or three weeks we were down and out,” said Torii Hunter, the Angels’ clubhouse leader. “We’d strike out and it was no big deal, because my friend just passed. (Then) we realized Nick Adenhart was looking down on us. He’s a starting pitcher, and he wants to win. We knew he was saying, ‘Boys, what the hell are you doing?'”

Indeed, the Angels played the rest of April in what Hunter calls “a fog,” only emerging after some collective soul-searching and manager Mike Scioscia’s delicate prodding.

They’ve been outstanding ever since, finishing with 97 wins for the majors’ second-best record and their fifth AL West title in six years. But nobody has forgotten how they felt when they first heard the news, passed by text messages and frantic phone calls in the early-morning hours of April 9.

The Angels still remember returning to the stadium hours later, even though their game against Oakland was postponed. They remember Jim Adenhart, the pitcher’s father, giving emotional thanks that day for their support of his son, and they remember the team’s heartbreaking private memorial service at the stadium two weeks later.

Scioscia has spent 10 years in charge of a franchise with more than its share of distressing history, from the violent deaths of Chico Ruiz and Mike Miley to Lyman Bostock and Donnie Moore. The manager realized his team needed to get past Adenhart’s death in its own time – although he didn’t shy from encouraging his players to do their jobs when the slump lingered.

“I never used Nick as a motivator,” Scioscia said. “I think it was the spirit of it, and it was about accountability. The message was that we’re a good team. We’re better than this. If we’re not getting it done, we’re going to have to make some changes. They looked in the mirror, and they responded.”

Instead of trying to think past Adenhart, the Angels embraced his presence in their game and their lives.

“We’re all playing in his memory,” said reliever Jason Bulger, who has spent the season next-door to Adenhart’s locker. “We keep his jersey with us at every game, home and away. We keep his locker the way it was. He’s always in our hearts.”

Adenhart was slated to be a key member of the Angels’ starting rotation. Instead, Los Angeles used 14 starting pitchers this season in a rotation that coalesced only when the club acquired Scott Kazmir from Tampa Bay in August. The only constant in the rotation has been Weaver, who had offered to board Adenhart in his Long Beach home during the season. Adenhart never got the chance to move in.

“You try to move on as much as possible and think about the good times you had with him,” Weaver said.

“I know the way Weaver’s been pitching all season, he’s pitching with a purpose, a passion, like he’s pitching for Nick Adenhart,” Hunter added. “You don’t overcome anything like that. I think it’s more motivation. His death and everything, it pushed us a little harder to go out and win – for us and for Nick Adenhart. We had dual purpose.”

When the Angels clinched the division with a shutout victory over Texas, they celebrated with Adenhart, whose family was voted a full share of their playoff winnings.

After Scioscia mentioned the pitcher in his postgame remarks, the Angels grabbed his jersey and poured beer and champagne over it. When they took the field again, they ran en masse to the outfield wall and posed for pictures with Adenhart’s image, again dumping a little bubbly on him.

“He deserved it,” Hunter said. “That would have happened if he was here. He was always with us. Some people are critical of that stuff – maybe four people – but people have always got something to say. They don’t really understand until they’ve gone through it. There was nothing wrong with that.”


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