Defining moments

ANAHEIM -- Jered Weaver still remembers the hollow feeling in his stomach and the eerie quiet all around him. There were more than 41,000 fans in Angel Stadium on that Friday night a year ago, but the crowd barely made a murmur, even with the Boston Red Sox in the other dugout.

"It's one of those things where you're kind of like, 'Are we supposed to be playing this game?'" Weaver said. "I just remember it kind of feeling empty in the crowd and in the clubhouse and in the dugout, everywhere."

Weaver carved Nick Adenhart's initials in the dirt before every inning he pitched that night and, if you watched closely Monday night, he did it again, bending over with his index finger scratching the dirt.

A year after his budding friendship with the 22-year-old pitcher ended with Adenhart's death in a car crash, Weaver still occasionally has dreams in which Adenhart pops up. It happened just a couple of months ago.

And, yeah, it still hurts to think about him.

But sometimes good things grow out of awful things, little yellow flowers sprouting from rotting logs. Don't they call that the cycle of life? A year after Adenhart's death, Weaver thinks he has become a more mature, focused pitcher, in part because of the tragedy.

Other people see it in the way he conducts himself in the clubhouse. They see it in the way he pays attention in the weight room. It wasn't all that long ago that John Lackey had to practically threaten him to get him to lift.

He's no longer the easy-going, laugh-it-off surfer type the Angels got from Long Beach State, the one who was cited for public intoxication and spent the night in jail not long before his first major league start in 2006.

He might be just the kind of guy the Angels need to anchor their staff this season with Lackey in Boston.

"You could see him starting to turn the corner before that. After that, you definitely saw the maturation," Scot Shields said of the accident. "Something like that, it doesn't get much harder than what he went through."

Weaver hadn't known Adenhart for years, as some of the younger Angels had. But he had decided that spring that he would take the bright young kid under his wing. He saw something of himself in Adenhart. Their lanky builds were a common denominator. Adenhart was going to move into Weaver's Long Beach apartment later that weekend.

Weaver recalls pressing against the screen in the Angels' dugout watching every pitch of Adenhart's confident first start of 2009. It would be Adenhart's only start of 2009.

That was April 8, 2009. Adenhart shut out the Oakland A's through six innings.

Weaver recalls it with pride as if Adenhart were the younger brother he never had. It was Jered who had always been the kid brother. Jeff Weaver of the Los Angeles Dodgers is six years older, and the two were not particularly close growing up.

"His couple of starts before that, I think the extra deck [in the stadium] kind of got to him. He had some nerves, and he was pitching a little bit differently than I remember him pitching in spring training," Weaver said. "That night, he was being aggressive. When he threw against Oakland, it all came together."

In the wee hours of the next morning, Andrew Thomas Gallo -- soon to be tried on murder and drunken-driving charges – allegedly ran his minivan through a Fullerton red light and plowed into a car carrying Adenhart and three friends. Adenhart and two others died.

It would become the life-defining moment for Adenhart's family, the season-defining moment for the Angels.

"When something like that happens, you realize not every day is promised," Weaver said this week. "We've got something pretty special going on here. We get to do what we love to do and to go out there and have fun with it. Obviously, you're going to have a bad game here and there. Don't let it hang on your head because there are obviously some worse things that can be happening."

Hundreds of thousands of Angels fans and millions of sports fans were in mourning for Adenhart last year. They didn't even know him. Imagine how Weaver felt 36 hours later on the mound, standing there with a ball in his hand.

There wasn't much choice. It was his turn to pitch. The league wasn't going to cancel the season. So, Weaver did what they pay him to do. Shields pitched later that game and got the save, but by then Weaver had set the tone: The Angels would continue to compete, heavy hearts or not.

"He had to deal with it on every single pitch," Shields said. "It shows the makeup he has."

Weaver remembers the competitive juices kicking in around the second inning, as the Red Sox hitters started to pressure him. He walked Jason Bay, which moved Kevin Youkilis to second. There was only one out.

"Once you get some runners on base, you think, 'Hey, this is baseball. We've still got to get this done," Weaver said.

Jeff Mathis was catching that game, and he had to pay attention to Weaver's emotional state while monitoring his mechanics.

"None of us had really been with Nick through a whole year like Bobby [Wilson] or Brandon [Wood], but we knew coming into that spring that he was probably going to be with us, so we took it upon ourselves to try to get to know him, to be extra open to him," Mathis said. "Jered was going to live with him, so yeah, he was getting extremely close to him."

Weaver and Mathis worked through the jam. Mike Lowell hit a rocket, but it went right to Gary Matthews Jr. in right field. Weaver got Jed Lowrie to pop out to left. He would pretty much cruise from there, exiting his first start of 2009 after allowing just one run on four hits in 6 2/3 innings. He went on to become the Angels' best starting pitcher last year, winning 16 games and leading the staff in ERA and innings.

"After I got out of that jam, it helped get me over that hump and to realize, 'Hey, this is obviously a terrible accident, but we've still got a game to play and Nick wouldn't be too happy if I was out there throwing up water balloons,'" Weaver said.

The Angels gradually would learn to grieve and compete at the same time. They would go on to win 97 games and push the eventual world-champion New York Yankees to six games in the ALCS. Weaver set the competitive tone that evening.

You can't underestimate that.

"Getting back on the field, and with him getting things going," Mathis said, "I think that helped us a lot."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.