Josh Hader was about 5 when he joined his Anne Arundel County youth baseball team on the field at Camden Yards in a pregame ceremony.
A youth league standout, Hader went on to become a star pitcher at Old Mill High in Millersville and couldn't believe his good fortune when he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles after his senior year.
He made his minor league debut in 2012 in the Gulf Coast League and with Aberdeen and began the 2013 season as the No. 13 prospect in the Baltimore farm system, according to Baseball America. He appeared well on his way to one day pitching for the Orioles.
"It sounded too good to be true," Hader said in late May.
Turns out it was.
In July 2013, the Orioles traded the 6-foot-3 left-hander and another local prospect — L.J. Hoes, who grew up near Bowie — to the Houston Astros for veteran pitcher Bud Norris.
The Orioles were gearing up for a playoff push, which fell short, and decided to trade some of their future commodities for a right-handed starter who could help down the stretch. At the time, Hader was pitching for the low Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds in Salisbury.
Almost a year later, Norris still pitches for the Orioles while Hoes, who hit .209 for the Astros early this season, was sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma City in late May.
Hader, just two years out of high school, is nearly 3,000 miles away, pitching in the Houston farm system for the Lancaster JetHawks, a high Single-A club in the hitter-friendly California League.
"When I was two hours away [in Salisbury], it was easy," he said during a recent road trip with Lancaster. "Family could come out and watch and stuff like that. It is kind of tough with the three-hour time difference. I don't talk to my family as much, but they listen to the games [on the Internet] when I pitch."
Hader, 20, is looking forward to late June, after the high Single-A All-Star break, when his girlfriend and mother plan to visit him. If he keeps pitching well, Hader might be with the California League all-stars when they play the Carolina League all-stars on June 17 in Wilmington, Del.
In his first 12 games (eight starts), he was 5-0 with an ERA of 2.44. In 55.1 innings he had allowed just 36 hits and had an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 69 to 19. Opposing hitters had a paltry average of .186 against him.
This month he was named to the California League All-Star team, and is playing the Carolina League All-Stars on Tuesday, June 17, in Wilmington, Del.
He has impressed Dyar Miller, a former Orioles' pitcher from 1975-1977, who is now a minor league instructor in the Houston farm system.
"I saw his first start in Lancaster this year," said Miller, who lives in his native Indiana. "He is having a good year. He has a pretty nice delivery. He is a fierce competitor; I think he will have a very good career."
The California League, with many parks in high altitudes, can be rough on pitchers and their ERA. Hader said he has to focus. "Ultimately it's still baseball," he says.
He throws his fastball in the low 90s and began this season as the No. 14 prospect in the Houston system, according to Baseball America.
Hader said the big thing for him this year is "sequence," or deciding what to throw and when.
"Using the pitch when I should and when I need to," he said. "Not being where they can guess what I am throwing or knowing what I am throwing. That is the big thing."
Brooklyn Park High graduate Dean Albany is the Orioles' scout who signed Hader. "He is going to get stronger and he is going to get better, and he is going to mature," Albany said last year.
Off the field, Hader lives with five teammates in a house in Lancaster, a city of about 150,000 in northern Los Angeles County near the Mojave Desert.
Last July, Hader was preparing for a South Atlantic League game on the road in West Virginia when he learned he had been traded to the Astros.
"When I heard about it, it was pretty crazy. Finding that out was pretty crazy. You really don't know what to expect. You make friends, then I was sent to Iowa. It is a pretty crazy experience, but so far it has gone well," he said.
After the trade, Hader pitched in five games for Quad City (Iowa), a farm team of the Astros, and was 2-0 with an ERA of 3.22. He then worked out last winter at Athletic Performance Inc. in Gambrills before heading to Florida for spring training in February, to get an early start on the season.
Despite the trade, Hader still hopes to one day play at Camden Yards.
"I will be there one day," he said, "but playing with Houston."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun