Something happened in Spain. Jeremy Guthrie doesn't want to say it was divine intervention, because the Lord has plenty better to do than gild a man's right arm. Though since basic logic vets no other explanation, Guthrie, the Baltimore Orioles' rookie revelation, simply views it as another reason to believe.
During his two-year Mormon mission across the northern part of the country, Guthrie woke up every morning at 7 a.m. to teach English, pick up garbage on the streets and, most important, spread his religion. And on the rare occasion that baseball invaded his thoughts, Guthrie reminded himself that he didn't bring his glove for a reason: To him, pitching never equaled living.
So imagine the surprise when he picked up a baseball in July 2000 and tossed it with his father. Guthrie felt different. And when he walked on at Stanford, having run and lifted weights for only a month. His fastball popped like fireworks, and he located it with the precision of a scope, and, well, this wasn't just different.
It was special.
"Things I never did prior to the mission I was able to do afterward, even though it wasn't by my doing," Guthrie said. "It wasn't something I expected or asked for. I didn't want to be a missionary for two years so I could be a better baseball player. In high school, I worked 10 hours a day and lifted weights, and I wasn't able to come close to achieving what I could when I got back."
Finally, seven years later, baseball is beginning to see in Guthrie, 28, what he saw in himself. Drafted by the Cleveland Indians, then buried in their farm system, Guthrie landed in Baltimore this offseason on a $20,000 waiver claim. Injuries forced him into the Orioles' rotation at the beginning of May, where he has responded with a rash of brilliant performances that placed him second in the American League with a 2.63 earned-run average, first in baseball with 8.25 baserunners per nine innings and in a dead heat with Cincinnati's Josh Hamilton for most improbable star of the year.
"He's one of the great stories of Major League Baseball for this season," Orioles interim manager Dave Trembley said. "It's more than just rooting for the guy. Jeremy Guthrie epitomizes what you think a major leaguer is supposed to be."
Trembley first met Guthrie at 8 a.m. outside a hotel in Bowie, Md. The day after Guthrie started for Double-A Akron, Trembley, then managing the Orioles' Double-A team, saw him running a few miles and struck up a conversation with him afterward.
Through the years, they crossed paths. Guthrie pitching for Trembley in an All-Star game and against him at Triple-A. Trembley filing yearly reports on Guthrie and pitching him to Orioles brass. When the Indians cut Guthrie to alleviate a logjam on their 40-man roster – one that isn't so jammed anymore, with Jason Davis traded and Roberto Hernandez released – Trembley, along with Orioles scout Dave Hollins, were effusive in their recommendations to the front office.
"He can pitch," Trembley said. "He's going to pitch for a long time. And he's going to be good for a long time."
Which is to say Guthrie has come a long way from the kid who barely pitched until his senior year in high school. To compound his anonymity, Guthrie went to school in Ashland, Ore., not exactly on the TripTik of most scouts. Undrafted, he spent his freshman year at Brigham Young, where he started off well before spiraling toward a 6.54 ERA by the end of the season.
Surrounded by Carlos Quentin, Ryan Garko and others at Stanford helped kindle Guthrie's passion for baseball. On his first day at school, a group of teammates took him to an Oakland Athletics game, where he met Barry Zito. He put up superb numbers too, winning 13 games in back-to-back seasons, garnering All-America honors and wowing the scouts that missed him the first time with a 96-mph fastball, late-breaking slider and morale-crushing curveball.
The Indians invested $4 million in Guthrie, which made it even more curious when they let him go. Guthrie celebrated. He felt freed from expectations. Guthrie talked with Orioles assistant general manager Scott Proefrock about the possibility of making the big-league club. He called Paul Byrd, his teammate in Cleveland, and asked what it was like to work with Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
Excitement overwhelmed him, and Guthrie made the Orioles as a long reliever out of spring training. His first start against Tampa Bay earned Guthrie a second, and his second defined him as well as the Orioles' season.
Before that game, against Boston, Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar pulled Guthrie aside. Guthrie, Millar said, reminded him a lot of Curt Schilling, another late bloomer. As good as their secondary pitches are, both work best when their fastballs can set up their other offerings.
Guthrie completely stymied the Red Sox for eight innings. With a 5-0 lead, he recorded one out in the ninth inning before an error by Ramon Hernandez allowed Coco Crisp to reach first. Though at just 91 pitches, Guthrie got the hook from manager Sam Perlozzo. The Orioles' bullpen imploded, and closer Chris Ray's error forced in the final two runs of a brutal 6-5 loss.
Were any comfort to come from that day, it was the inkling that maybe this wasn't some fluke. Maybe, off the waiver wire, the Orioles had found a keeper.
"Something really clicked," Bako said, "because he went from being OK and pretty good to lights out. He's a guy absolutely no one wants to face."
Slowly, Guthrie has ingratiated himself into the Orioles' clubhouse. He's polite to a fault, his voice soft enough that it might not pierce paper walls. He's still waiting to find a willing chess opponent after vanquishing the entire Indians clubhouse. When Millar plays goof, Guthrie plays along.
"Who," Millar said, holding a television reporter's microphone, "was the famous Bostonian that rode through the streets of Boston and screamed and yelled, 'The redcoats are coming!' "
"My guess would be Paul Revere," Guthrie said, "but is it Jason Varitek?"
He's the Stanford guy, so of course he's going to get those questions. On occasion, Guthrie will get others, more important ones. A few days ago, Bako was curious about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Guthrie is careful to talk about it. The baseball clubhouse isn't Santiago or San Sebastian or Burgos. He said there's a fine line between educating and proselytizing.
Yet his faith, Guthrie said, landed him here. And what better way to honor it than spreading his story by convincing more and more people that he's not just here, but here to stay.
"It's like that feeling I had after the mission," Guthrie said. "It's not just me doing it. Last year and the year before, I was really the same guy. Now, for whatever reason, it's going well.
"And I hope to do with that what I'm supposed to."