The honest feedback Swenson offered Conley that long-ago day in Olympia helped propel the scrappy lefty to where he is today: the No. 2 starting pitcher on a Miami Marlins team that has positioned itself toward what could become their first playoff appearance since winning the World Series in 2003.
Swenson, now the pitching coach at the University of Portland, said he first saw Conley in August 2007. Conley was a month shy of the start of his senior year at Olympia High and was coming off a strong junior season.
But on the day Swenson first watched him, he saw something else.
“I saw a live, loose arm that looked like it was going to be really good, but, unfortunately, he was only throwing 80 to 82 (mph),” Swenson said last week. “We told him we thought he was good, but that he needed more seasoning.
“A lot of kids would have walked away from us at that time, and I know he was being recruited by Washington. But Adam came to our camp the following January. By then, he was throwing 86, 87. We offered him a scholarship, and he accepted.”
Conley went on to have a huge senior year, leading Olympia to a third-place finish at state. He set school single-season records that year for wins, innings, strikeouts and batting average against.
He was drafted that June, in the 32nd round by the Minnesota Twins, but Conley knew he was better than selection No. 966.
So he enrolled at WSU, and it turned out to be a great decision. He stayed for three years and was drafted in the second round by the Miami Marlins in 2011.
Four years after that, Conley was in the majors, and now he’s beginning to establish himself with a 6-5 record and a 3.65 ERA. He ranks in the top 25 in the NL in ERA and strikeouts per nine innings.
Six times this season, he has left a start without allowing a run, and once – on April 29 at Milwaukee – he departed without allowing a hit in 7 2/3 innings.
“As hard as this is to make sense of, I always knew I was going to be here (in the majors),” Conley said last week while standing by his locker in the Marlins clubhouse. “I don’t really have an explanation of why that is.”
Conley, a 6-3, 200-pounder who turned 26 in May, said his journey to the majors hasn’t always been easy.
“I had ups and downs along the way,” he said. “I had some dark times in my life. I had some pretty reckless years in my life. But I always felt this is where I would end up.”
STARTING TO DREAM
Conley said he was seven-years-old when he first mentioned – out loud – that he wanted to pitch in the majors. It was an audacious dream at the time, but it now appears more like a prophecy.
But Conley, who is married and has a family that also includes his father Larry, mother Katy and an older brother, Jeremy, said he has had a lot of help along the way.
“I was very blessed,” he said. “I remember even being 10 years old and having coaches who were amazing people.
“They weren’t getting kids hurt. They were really good guys who cared about baseball and cared about kids. I’ve been blessed to have people like that in my life.”
Conley used that foundation during his career at WSU.
He was 1-1 with a 5.97 ERA in 25 appearances as a freshman, but showed a glimpse of what was to come when he earned a save against Washington with a brilliant, six-strikeout performance.
The next season, as a sophomore in 2010, he had a breakout, earning all-conference honors after racking up 12 saves, 5 wins and 47 strikeouts in 67 innings. His work helped the Cougars reach an NCAA Tournament regional for the second-straight season.
“I had a big bump in velo (that year),” Conley said of his improved fastball. “With me being left-handed and being kind of funky (in his delivery), I think that’s when I thought, man, this (pro ball) is going to come soon. I’m going to get a shot.”
As a junior in 2011, Conley became the team’s ace starter, pitching well despite increased attention from pro scouts at each game.
“None of that fazed him,” Swenson said. “He had that laser-beam focus. It was pretty special to watch.”
The Marlins obviously agreed. They chose him with the 72nd overall pick, signing him with a bonus offer of $625,000.
By going to college, Conley improved his draft stock by 894 places.
He motored through his first two seasons in the minor leagues, going a combined 22-12 with an ERA in the low 3s in A and Double-A ball. Elbow tendinitis held him to just 12 starts at Triple A in 2014, but he got back on track last year, going 9-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 19 appearances, including 18 starts, at Triple A New Orleans.
MAKING THE MAJORS
That earned him his first promotion to the majors, on June 10, 2015, pitching a 1-2-3 scoreless eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays.
He was returned to Triple-A after that game, but it was still a thrill – the first of several as a major-leaguer.
Conley got his first big-league start on July 11 of that year, beating the Cincinnati Reds by allowing two runs in five innings. He finished that year with a 4-1 record and a solid 3.76 ERA in the majors.
This year, it’s been more of the same. And even though Conley’s fastball now averages 92 mph – just a tick below the MLB norm of 93 – it appears as if he has arrived to stay.
“The biggest thing about the big leagues is how much I’ve learned,” he said. “Even though it’s the same game I’ve been playing my whole life, the caliber of the average player here is so much better.
“It forces you to work faster, to think faster. Everyone in this league is making adjustments. And when they are not right (on their adjustments), they are not far off from being really good. I think that’s how guys hang around in this league.”
Conley has earned the respect of manager Don Mattingly and his teammates. And despite being in the majors for just one calendar year, Conley has figured things out quickly.
“I learned there were a lot of things I was getting away with at other levels that weren’t going to cut it up here,” he said.
“It’s just experience. I’m around guys, some of them have 10 years of experience. (Outfielder) Ichiro (Suzuki), I don’t even know how many years he’s on – he’s working on two decades in the big leagues.
“You have these guys who have been around for so long, who have had success. It’s a resource. You try to gather as much as you can from them and learn their ways while at the same time staying true to who you are.
“It’s been an incredible experience. There’s so much going on around you. There’s always something new to learn so you can become the best possible version of yourself.”