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From the archives: Dallas Braden, Landon Powell had long journey to perfection

The Oakland A’s 2004 draft was dubbed “Moneyball 2” by many pundits at the time. Thanks to the departures of free agents such as Miguel Tejada and Keith Foulke, the A’s had four first round picks and six picks in the first three rounds. Yet it was a late round pick from that season who made history on May 9, 2010, as Dallas Braden threw a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Oakland.

It didn’t take long for the Oakland A’s to realize they had something special with their 24th round pick in the 2004 draft. Dallas Braden didn’t receive much fanfare when he was drafted by the A’s out of Texas Tech that season. Many, including this pundit, believed that Braden’s ceiling was the bullpen. He was a soft tossing lefty whose best pitch was a screwball. Even the most optimistic talent evaluators never could have imagined that he would one day throw a perfect game in the major leagues.

But Braden defied expectations from the moment he joined the A’s organization, thanks in large part to his competitive nature. At the end of the 2009 season, A’s Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi talked about Braden’s competitive spirt.

“We definitely view Dallas as a very positive veteran influence on the staff because he has been around, he has pitched through pain and showed his toughness as a competitor,” Zaidi said in September 2009.

“The fact of the matter is that if the other guys on our staff took advantage of their ability or their talent level to the extent that Dallas does, we would have a pretty good rotation. I think that Dallas is a fine example of someone who really makes the most of his ability and I think his stuff really plays up because of his competitiveness and desire. He is a great example for the staff.”

Braden was a strike-out pitcher in college with Texas Tech, but he didn’t throw hard (low- to mid-80s) and he got most of his strike-outs when using his screwball. After signing with the A’s, he made some mechanical adjustments and saw his velocity jump to the 87-90 MPH range. He dominated for short-season Vancouver just after signing and then became one of the only members of the A’s 2004 draft class to appear for a full-season A’s affiliate in 2004. Pitching against more experienced players, Braden struck-out 33 and walked only six in 23 innings for Kane County. Prospect-watchers were now on notice that the A’s may have gotten a steal with their 24th round pick.

The A’s continued to show a lot of confidence in Braden the following season, starting him at High-A in the hitter-friendly California League with the Stockton Ports. Ironically, 2005 was the first season that the A’s California League affiliate was in Stockton, Braden’s hometown. He became an instant hometown hero and he drew a big crowd for every start. Over the years, Braden has become a fixture at the Ports’ home ballpark, Banner Island Ballpark, coming out to interact with fans and give back to the community. He still lives in Stockton, commuting to Oakland for every A’s home game.

Braden wasn’t long for the Ports’ rotation, however. He proved to be too good for the California League, going 6-0 with a 2.68 ERA in seven starts (including a complete game) with 64 strike-outs in 43.2 innings. The A’s promoted Braden to Double-A and he became the second player from his draft class to advance beyond Single-A (Huston Street was the first). Braden handled himself well as a 21-year-old in Double-A, posting a 3.90 ERA in 16 starts. Braden was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year that season, but it ended on a down note, as Braden was battling arm soreness at the end of the season.

That arm soreness resulted in shoulder surgery in February 2006 and cost him much of that season. Braden made only 10 regular season starts that season and there were some questions as to whether he would be able to regain his effectiveness. However, he traveled to Puerto Rico that off-season and pitched well, allowing him to enter the 2007 season with confidence. He dominated in the minor leagues, posting ERAs under 3.00 in 13 starts for Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. Braden made his major league debut that season, but he struggled, posting a 1-8 record and a 6.72 ERA.

In 2008, Braden began the year back at Triple-A Sacramento, but after posting a 2.95 ERA in 11 starts for the River Cats, Braden forced his way back on the A’s roster. In 19 appearances for the A’s that season (10 starts), Braden posted a 4.14 ERA and he was with the A’s for good. In 2009, Braden was given the honor of being the A’s Opening Day starter, and he responded by putting together an outstanding season, posting a 3.89 ERA in 22 starts.

Injuries have had a major impact on Braden’s career. In 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009, Braden missed significant amounts of time with injuries. Braden’s arm surgery in 2006 threatened his career, but also shaped the pitcher that he is today. After the surgery the A’s asked him to focus more on the change-up rather than his screwball, as they feared the screwball may have led to his shoulder problems. In August 2007, then-A’s minor league pitching coordinator (and current A’s bullpen coach) Ron Romanick described why he believed that Braden’s change-up was going to be his best pitch:

“His change-up is like a screwball anyway. We are just trying to sell to him, ‘just throw that change-up’ because it is a lot like [Tom] Glavine’s, which has that late fade to it. You don’t need to try to turn-over the pitch even further than it is already. Just throw that change-up. It is a lot more consistent [than the screwball] and it already has a lot of swing-and-miss. When it is on, it is just like Tom Glavine’s and I’ll take Tom Glavine’s change-up any day,” Romanick said in 2007.

Braden’s batterymate for his perfect game, Landon Powell, was also drafted by the A’s in 2004. In 2004, Powell had a much higher profile than Braden, as Powell was a first-round pick, the 24th player selected that season. At the time of the draft, Powell was considered a future star behind the plate as a talented defensive catcher with a potent bat from both sides of the plate.

It wasn’t an easy path for Powell to catching a perfect game in the big leagues, however. After playing with Braden in Vancouver in 2004, Powell missed the entire 2005 season after tearing his ACL during an off-season workout. Powell returned to the field in 2006 and starred for the Stockton Ports and finished the year with Midland. He continued to play well for Midland in 2007 and was promoted to Triple-A midway through that season.

Powell looked poised to make his major league debut at the end of that season, but only four games into his stint in Triple-A, Powell tore his ACL again and suddenly his big league future was in doubt. Defying all expectations, Powell was back on the field by Opening Day in 2008. He spent the entire season with the River Cats, and he hit 15 homers for Sacramento and won the team’s Rookie of the Year award. His major league debut once again seemed imminent, but knee trouble delayed it, as Powell went under the knife again in August 2008. That off-season, Powell faced another obstacle, as he was found to have a liver problem that required him to take medication that made him prone to muscle pulls.

Despite all of that, Powell finally reached the big leagues in 2009. Powell made the A’s Opening Day roster in 2009 and spent the entire season as the A’s back-up catcher, earning a reputation for being an outstanding defensive back-stop. Going into spring training in 2010, Powell was expected to be the A’s back-up catcher once again, but the A’s surprisingly went with Jake Fox as the back-up, sending Powell back to Sacramento. Powell only had the opportunity to return to the big leagues because A’s starter Kurt Suzuki, who had never been on the DL in his career before, landed on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

With all of the trials and tribulations it took for Braden and Powell to get on the field in Oakland on May 9th, it seems only fitting that the day would end with history.

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