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12/31/09 10:00 AM EST

Downs caps 'lucky' year with MiLBY

Rays lefty dominant before getting struck with line drive

For some pitchers, earning their team's Most Valuable Player award, especially in their first full season in a new organization, would be the highlight of the year.

But in the case of Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Darin Downs, the highlight may have been celebrating his 25th birthday last week.

Downs knows he's lucky to be alive.

Downs had been enjoying what was, by far, the best season of his career, one that earned the MiLBY for Best Class A Advanced Starting Pitcher as he went 12-4 with a 2.00 ERA for the Charlotte Stone Crabs.

He'd been promoted to Double-A Montgomery in early August and was on the mound in just his second start for the Biscuits on Aug. 17 at Birmingham when, in the fifth inning, a line drive struck him just below the left ear.

He never lost consciousness but suffered a fractured skull that landed him in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. He remained hospitalized for more than a week before returning to his home in Boynton Beach, Fla., where he has been recovering, slowly but steadily, ever since.

"He's doing well, on the road to recovery," said Mitch Lukevics, Tampa Bay's director of Minor League operations. "We're not 100 percent sure where he'll be by Spring Training right now, but all indications are that he's on track for now."

The Rays acquired Downs in July 2008 from the Cubs, who had selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 Draft. Elbow trouble slowed his ascent with that organization and eventually shifted him to a relief role with Chicago.

But when the Rays were looking for an available arm for the bullpen of their Florida State League affiliate in 2008, they focused on Downs and were able to make the deal for a player to be named. Though he spent the rest of last season in the bullpen for Vero Beach (then the club's Class A Advanced affiliate), he moved into a starting role this year when the team shifted operations to Charlotte.

In 20 games with the Stone Crabs, Downs struck out 111 and walked only 23 over 121 2/3 innings, including a season highlight in which he fanned 10 in back-to-back games. In his first stint as a full-time starter since 2005, he limited opponents to a .253 average and allowed only four earned runs in his last five starts, leading the league in ERA before the promotion to Montgomery and, with his cumulative 2.23 ERA, ranking eighth among all Minor League full-season starting pitchers.

Downs' injury was a frightening flashback to the 2007 death of Colorado Rockies Minor League coach Mike Coolbaugh, who was killed when hit in the head by a foul line drive while coaching first base.

"It is scary," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's such a freakish and flukish and unpredictable play. It's horrendous what happened."

Though Downs was not yet back on the mound, he attended the organization's Minor League Awards dinner during the instructional league to accept his team MVP award. He'd also been Charlotte's nominee for the Erik Walker Award, which recognizes the Rays Minor Leaguer who best exemplifies teamwork, sportsmanship and community involvement. It was created in memory of Erik Walker, a former Rays Minor League pitcher who died in a boating accident.

Downs' turnaround season in 2009 came as he started showing more consistency with the good stuff the Rays had spied in him when they acquired him.

"This year, he started putting together the things that weren't successful in the past -- he was throwing the fastball down in the strike zone a little better, his slider a little bit sharper," Lukevics said. "Sometimes when you make a change of organization things happen in mysterious ways, and he was the most consistent starter we had last year in the Minors."

The organization is hopeful Downs will be able to continue that development in 2010.

"When I was leaving the hospital, one of the ER (nurses) told me I shouldn't have survived," Downs told columnist John Romano of the St. Petersburg Times. "They never said anything like that before because they didn't want to scare me. But they said the way I was recovering was not normal. I was recovering faster than I should have. I look back and I think I was really lucky. It was a fluke accident, but I think I'm blessed to be here today."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.