Miller Time

After a stellar freshman campaign, Kevin Miller was hampered with a hip injury. He has come back strong his senior year to be one of the Bears' best.

Photo: After a stellar freshman campaign, Kevin Miller was hampered with a hip injury. He has come back strong his senior year to be one of the Bears' best.
Kevin Foote/Photo
After a stellar freshman campaign, Kevin Miller was hampered with a hip injury. He has come back strong his senior year to be one of the Bears' best.

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Kevin Miller's Windup

Take a slowed-down look at Kevin Miller's windup.



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Growing up, Kevin Miller came home from school every day eagerly anticipating a game of catch. One day, when he was five years old, his dad decided to toss him pop-up balls.

One throw hung in the air, and Miller positioned his glove above his head - but not quite where it needed to be. The ball smacked against his face, breaking his nose and splattering out blood.

He spent the next hour or so cleaning up. Then he came back out and asked if he could play some more.

"Oh my gosh, you've got yourself a ballplayer," his mom said.

Kevin Miller is 21 now. With no more than three months left in his Cal career, he says he's never considered what he might do if the sport doesn't pan out for him. Baseball is all he's ever known.

This season, coach David Esquer has routinely called him the team's best pitcher. He no-hit Coastal Carolina through seven innings in February, struck out 15 at San Francisco in March. For about a week, he had the second-best ERA in the country - that 0.46 has since swelled to 1.38, which still has him hovering in the top-20 and safely among the Pac-10 elite.

But look at Miller, whose media guide listing of six feet seems about two inches too generous, and you wonder how this is happening - how a babyfaced 205-pound guy who looks more like an overgrown child has become the most valuable piece of the Bears' deep pitching staff.

"The only way to describe him is the skinniest fat kid you've ever seen," former Cal pitcher Mike Cassady says. "He just had this body type, you couldn't describe it. When he got on the mound, you didn't even notice because he was just pounding the strike zone."

Miller did that immediately, prototype build or not. Even early on, the San Jose native looked like he'd been on campus for years.

On March 15, 2008, his parents drove up and watched their son in Berkeley for the first time. Senior Craig Bennigson, an All-Pac-10 honorable mention the year prior, had given up nine runs on 13 hits to Loyola Marymount and its middling 7-8 record. A three-run homer in the fifth had shrunk the one-loss Bears' lead to 12-9.

Esquer called to pitching coach Dan Hubbs for a replacement. Hubbs called out Miller's name, and he started warming up. Esquer did a double take.

You have a freshman up?

The next batter flied out to end the frame. The next inning, Miller allowed one hit. After that, he retired the side. Cal won, 21-9.

Miller ripped through his first 44 innings that year without allowing an earned run, and didn't realize how astounding it was until people started talking.

"I just assumed putting up zeroes is what I was supposed to do," he says.

The eventual Freshman All-American pitched 71 1/3 innings through the spring - a workhorse effort second only to Tyson Ross, who now plies his craft in the Coliseum about 13 miles south. Miller had excelled in long relief and the occasional start, so plans were in place to move him to Fridays to fill a rotation gutted by graduation.

***

The following fall, Hubbs was looking over practice footage when he noticed something was off. Miller had changed his delivery. Asked why, the right-hander explained that he was feeling pain in his left hip.

An MRI revealed a tear in his labrum. His hip socket was slightly inverted, which had caused the soft tissue to wear against bone every time he lifted his leg to wind up. It was an injury that, for almost anyone other than a baseball player, wouldn't have interrupted life at all.

Miller could either have the surgery right away and miss his sophomore season, or pitch through it while making do with wraps and injections. He chose the latter.

There were good days and bad days, though the bad slowly sapped from the good. He weakened as the season unfolded, and at times, the hip felt like it would give out as he planted his leg. Sometimes, the coaches pulled him after four or five innings when the pain got to be too much. He internalized most of the frustration and his teammates, for the most part, didn't ask.

Miller's load dropped to 50 innings. His ERA jumped from 2.90 - second in the conference - to 4.50. He altered his throwing motion to compensate, putting more strain on his shoulder and developing tendinitis for about a week. Maybe he should have had the surgery after all.

"No, I don't think so. I don't think I could stay away from baseball that long," he says. "I don't think I could have sat through an entire season and just watched, knowing that I still could play ...

"That's just something I - I have to be playing baseball. And that was what I decided."

The operation was done in June. The doctor dislocated his hip in order to get to the labrum, and shaved away bone to keep the wear and tear from recurring. Miller was stuck on crutches for the next four weeks.

Rehab may have felt worse. Miller's favorite part about pitching is being in every play, having the entire game revolve around what he does. Getting his body back into shape was the polar opposite.

"I didn't even do anything; I just lay on the table," he says. "They had to move it all for me. Sleeping at night was terrible. I had to put my leg in a machine to keep it moving throughout the night, so I didn't sleep a whole lot."

Junior year was supposed to be better, but Miller's comeback didn't unfold like he'd planned. His mechanics, skewed from adjustments he made in pain, weren't spot on. The hip still nagged at him and he worried about stepping wrong than solely focusing on the batter.

"It was almost like pitching with your hand tied behind your back," Hubbs says.

***

Miller finally feels fully healthy now. He's fiercely competitive and hard on himself, as he's always been, but he's been more lighthearted off the field. He's going to his fastball more than he did his freshman year, but the same dominance is back.

Still, Miller isn't part of the weekend rotation. If he feels underrated, he doesn't show it.

Cal is brimming with pitching talent at the moment. The White Sox drafted sophomore Justin Jones in the seventh round out of high school. Junior Dixon Anderson's mid-90s fastball and 6-foot-6 frame had the Orioles plucking him out of the sixth a year ago.

But Miller is the glue guy. He doesn't overpower hitters, but works his pitches with exceptional control. His rubbery arm lets him bounce back when other guys are still resting. He comes out of the bullpen on weekends when the Bears need him to, and starts here and there on Tuesdays, when bats often seem to start flat.

"He's a guy we have that can win two games a week," Hubbs says.

Cal is already five wins short of matching its 2010 total and, ranked at No. 15, its College World Series resume looks stronger than it has in years. Miller's own future, however, is less certain.

He gets anxious about the draft from time to time. Three years ago, Miller was one of the best in the country and everyone knew it. Injuries essentially wiped that slate blank. His measurables don't stand out, and scouts still might say he's too small, too short.

But ask him his favorite moment from this season, and you get the sense he'll be just fine. It's not the 15-strikeout game in San Francisco - he gave up a first-inning single which ate at the perfectionist in him.

It was seven hitless innings at BB&T Coastal Park, home of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans - the Texas Rangers' minor league farm team.

"I was under the lights," he says.

Two weeks later, Miller pitched seven innings of scoreless, one-hit relief at AT&T Park in a 15-inning marathon win over Rice. With the Owls in scoring position, he got his fifth strikeout to end the inning. He pumped his fist, celebrating underneath the lights.

He'll probably find them again, somewhere.

Tags: CAL BASEBALL, DAVID ESQUER, KEVIN MILLER


Jack Wang covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected]



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