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Baseball America weekend preview

3/24/2006

REMEMBER DUSTIN MILLER?

The right-hander earned freshman All-America honors in 2003 after going 9-2 with a 3.33 ERA as Cal State Fullerton's Sunday starter. Three years, two shoulder surgeries and one long battle later, Miller is right back where he started: starting on Sundays for the Titans. The fifth-year senior has compiled a 4-0 record and 3.37 ERA in his four starts, gaining strength and momentum every week.

"It's unbelievable," said Miller, who will face Long Beach State this weekend in a nonconference series. "It brings back memories of the old days. It's amazing."

Miller no longer owns the heavy, sinking 88-90 mph fastball that reminded Fullerton recruiters of Kevin Millwood during his time at Diamond Bar (Calif.) High. He's more in the mid 80s, a downer 12-to-6 curveball and his go-to pitch, a changeup that, from a hitter's perspective, never seems to get to the plate. Miller's endurance and strikeouts have gradually risen, reaching season highs of eight innings and five strikeouts last Sunday at Arizona.

"As a pitcher, I don't think I'm actually physically to the point I was [in 2003]," Miller said. "I'm a smarter pitcher now, which is what gets me by."

Miller, a 2001 high school graduate, has spent nearly as much time in surgery as he has on the mound since enrolling at Fullerton. He missed 2002 after having bone chips removed from his right elbow. Pain in his right shoulder led to rotator cuff surgery in March 2004, costing him the entire season. The procedure didn't alleviate any of the pain, so six months later, Miller went to Birmingham, Ala., where noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed a complete shoulder reconstruction in November 2004.

"The day they told me I'd have to have a reconstruction, they kind of said there wasn't a great chance I'd ever throw again," Miller said. "It was probably the worst day of my life."

"I'm always pretty optimistic," Fullerton coach George Horton said. "I have a lot of confidence in modern medicine, but after one minor surgery and two major ones, you start to wonder if the kid will ever come back."

The downtime wasn't easy on Miller. To keep his scholarship (which Fullerton has completely fulfilled), he was required to attend every practice, home game and nearby road game during the 2004 and 2005 seasons. He had to keep pitching charts and run the radar gun, a constant reminder of what he wished he could be doing. He slipped into depression and started seeing a therapist.

"To tell you the truth, I really didn't want to be there a lot of the times," Miller said. "There were multiple times I wanted to quit and say, 'OK, this just isn't meant for me.'"

Miller, who helped pitch Fullerton to the College World Series in 2003, watched Fullerton win the 2004 CWS on television in California at a friend's place. He was glad when he watched his teammates -- or, as he says, "my boys, these guys are like family to me" -- celebrate the victory. Then sadness set in. He excused himself and went for a long walk.

In 2005, Miller again watched as Fullerton looked poised to defend its title. When Fullerton ran out of arms in the final game of its super-regional loss to Arizona State, Miller wished he could have taken the mound. He wasn't able to sit in the stands for those games, as the NCAA doesn't allow player pass lists for those not on the 25-man postseason roster. So he and some of the redshirt players saved their money and followed the action from beyond the left field wall.

Miller felt far removed from the team at that point. Ricky Romero, its ace, barely had logged any innings on the 2003 team but blossomed into a first-round pick during the 2004 and 2005 seasons Miller missed. Felipe Garcia, Miller's catcher at Diamond Bar High, transferred in for those same two seasons and never caught a pitch from Miller as a Titan.

"The camaraderie is a lot different when you're playing ... than when you're sitting on the sidelines," Miller said. "The last two years, it was like all I had was [outfielder] Joe Turgeon. He's a fifth-year guy like me now, and one of my best friends. The last two years I haven't felt like I was part of team at all. It feels so good to be back now."

Miller made it through his tough times with the support of people such as Turgeon and Horton, with whom he engaged in several candid discussions about problems they each encountered in their personal lives. Miller also credits his parents, Michael and Eulema Miller, his brothers Damian and Dylan and sister Kristen with helping him through his lowest moments.

All were in attendance Feb. 26 when Miller made his first start since 2003. Dylan even got to be the batboy.

"I almost started crying, to be honest with you," Horton said of Miller's start. "I know on a personal basis what he was going through. It was a very difficult time for him."

That game is tied with his first appearance of the year as his season highlight. On Feb. 3, opening night at Stanford, Miller entered in the eighth inning of a tie game. It was a cold night, but his heart was racing and steam was rising off his head. He was nervous just warming up in the bullpen. Miller made a good pitch that Stanford's Michael Taylor sliced for a triple leading off the ninth. Taylor scored on a single off closer Vinnie Pestano.

"It was welcome back, here's a loss for you," the ever-competitive Miller said as he narrated the inning. "But it was nice."

Horton, who rarely singles out specific players, made a point of congratulating Miller on the bus that night. Miller had been throwing in game action for less than a month. He didn't throw a competitive pitch during fall practice and found out only a week before the Stanford series that he had made the travel roster.

Miller still hopes pro ball is in his future, and Horton said that if the right-hander doesn't get offered a roster spot after this season, Fullerton may appeal to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.

Even if Miller's baseball career ends after this season, his comeback will remain a great story of perseverance and inspiration. Miller initially worried that some people might view his struggles through surgery, rehab and depression as a sign of weakness. He has since changed his mind. He's talked to students at his old high school at the behest of his former guidance counselor. Just this past Wednesday morning, Miller found himself in tears while recounting his story in a personal experience paper for a class.

"It made me feel good, because once I got to the end, I started talking about what kind of person I am now, how I've changed making it through it, how I'm stronger. By the end I'm really proud.

"I wouldn't take any of it back. I could have been a top-five rounder and gotten drafted and had some money, but I like the person I am today."

Around the nation
• Expect plenty of scouts, radar guns and punchouts in Berkeley on Friday as Washington visits California, providing a matchup of two hard-throwing junior right-handers. Tim Lincecum is 4-2, with a 2.72 ERA, 69 strikeouts and 30 walks in 43 innings for Washington, while Brandon Morrow has gone 4-0, 1.29 with 46 strikeouts and a .186 opponents average in 42 innings.

• Santa Ana (Calif.) College coach Don Sneddon became the winningest coach in California community college history with a 2-1 win Tuesday against Riverside Community College. Sneddon improved to 832-286-3 in 25 years at Santa Ana. Jerry Weinstein, now in his fifth season as Cal Poly pitching coach, accumulated an 831-208-12 mark in 23 seasons at Sacramento City College.

• James Madison has won 16 straight games largely by outslugging opponents. The Dukes had outscored opponents 233-105 during their 16-4 start, with sophomore center fielder Kellen Kulbacki leading the Mash unit. His .533/.604/1.107 numbers and 11 home runs look a lot like something spit out of a video game.