ERIE, Pa -
As the New Hampshire Fisher Cats finished batting practice on a sweltering afternoon, Adam Loewen raced toward the clubhouse with a smile and a question.
"Where's the flag? Don't you have a flag?" he shouted.
A man waiting with a camera suddenly felt profoundly unprepared for the photo shoot. He should have known to bring along a regulation-size Canadian flag. Loewen and Shawn Bowman would have proudly posed with it draped it over their sweat-soaked T-shirts, the heat be damned.
In the land of Stars and Stripes, Loewen and Bowman readily remind teammates of their Maple Leaf lineage. The longtime buddies from British Columbia stick out for another reason too.
Born five kilometres and seven months apart in 1984, the B.C. bashers bat fourth and fifth for the Toronto Blue Jays' Double-A team. Bowman, the cleanup hitter, is hitting .308 with nine home runs, Loewen .297 with eight homers.
Each is an unlikely prospect on a comeback mission.
"Loewen?" muses a fan surveying the lineups on a stadium whiteboard. "Didn't he used to pitch?"
Indeed he did, and in the big leagues to boot. But the six-foot-six left-hander, a former first-round draft pick, suffered a series of arm injuries that ended his promising pitching career with Baltimore in 2008. He was 24.
But he was not done. Like most pro pitchers, Loewen was once a standout amateur hitter. He proved that in the elite British Columbia Premier League and at Chipola College in Florida.
So the Surrey, B.C., native decided to defy the odds and resurrect what once was a powerful left-handed swing. The Jays gave him an unusual two-year minor-league contract - call it a year to grow on - and sent him to right field.
He expected a rough ride, and he got it, batting .236 and striking out 114 times at Class-A Dunedin last season. Much of the time, he admits, he had no idea what he was doing. But he loved it.
"I really enjoyed last year, with my terrible numbers, just as much as this year," he said. "Even constantly struggling in 100-degree heat in the Florida State League, it was just as much fun."
Moved up to a tough Double-A league this year, he struggled early. But in May, all the coaching, video study and extra batting practice began to pay dividends.
"I started to become a real hitter," Loewen said. "It was like, 'Hey, I can really do this.' "
His manager, Luis Rivera, describes Loewen "a tireless worker" with an uncomplicated swing who has stopped trying to pull pitches and begun to use the entire field. On Saturday night, he homered to right, doubled twice to left and once to centre and singled to centre.
The next day, he struck out four times.
"I know I'm still a long way away," he said. "There are days where I'm doing one thing and I think I'm doing another. And when I get hot I don't know how to keep repeating the swing. Something always changes."
Rivera says Loewen has made the most progress of anyone on his team so far this season.
"I think he's on a good pace to be in the big leagues," the manager said.
Loewen believes it, too.
"I really think I will make it," he said. "I don't care when.
"I think I have the drive. I want it so bad. Could be because I'm Canadian, could be because I've been there, I don't know. I just want it really bad because I love playing the game."
Shawn Bowman could not believe his luck. In April, the New York Mets let him go on waivers after seven roller-coaster years. But suddenly, he was waving the flag again, and with an old friend as a teammate.
"When I found out the Blue Jays had claimed me, I couldn't have been happier because it's a Canadian team, it's the team I always followed growing up," he said. "Kelly Gruber was my favourite player. In '93 when they won, I was nine. I remember my mom let me stay up to watch that game when Joe Carter hit that home run."
Like Gruber, Bowman became a third baseman. The native of New Westminster, B.C., was a 12th-round pick in the 2002 draft, the same year Loewen went fourth overall to Baltimore. But he never got a sniff of the major leagues, in part because back problems forced him to miss large chunks of four seasons.
Healthy again, he is thriving at New Hampshire after a slow start. Finding a familiar face on his new team was an added perk. He and Loewen have played together on Canada's famously tight-knit national teams since their late teens.
Rivera said Bowman arrived with a long swing. A .180 hitter a month ago, he has shortened his stroke and boosted his production while bringing solid defence to the hot corner, a position of need in Toronto's system.
"He catches everything and has a great arm," Rivera said. "This is another kid that has a chance to play in the big leagues."
Bowman admits he did not always make the most of his chances. After coping with a back injury and battling back from surgery, he appreciates his new lease on life.
"I think I took the game for granted when I was younger," he said. "I didn't work as hard as I could've or should've back then.
"Now, after being out of baseball for almost three years and sitting there thinking my career was over, it really put a lot of things in perspective. I'm just so happy I can play again."
He remains hungry to make it to the majors. But he says he will play anywhere, for as long as anyone will let him.
"I know I speak for a lot of Canadian guys when I say we're just happy to play," Bowman said. "It's obviously better and greener in the big leagues, the money's more, and we all want to do well. But we love to play baseball wherever we are."