Two years ago Potomac right-hander Rich Gardner came close to losing a promising baseball career and even a normal life.

In 2002, one of Gardner's junior college teammates hit him in the head throwing from third base to first, leaving him with a concussion and a blood clot in the brain. Gardner couldn't exercise for two months -- he lost more than 30 pounds -- and he experienced speech problems for several more months.

A little more than two years after that accident, Gardner (5-2) is now a promising prospect. But at the time, baseball became secondary. "I was just trying to get back to normal," said Gardner. "I wasn't quite there mentally for quite awhile. I wanted to play baseball, too, but I really just wanted to get better."

Gardner, 22, has proven he's better in his first season as a professional. He has been the Cannons' most consistent starter; he is third on the team in ERA (2.53) and leads the team with 44 strikeouts.

But a successful professional career seemed far-fetched following his injury. Gardner said he didn't feel right mentally or physically in the months after the blow to his head. He had trouble speaking and conveying his thoughts, and he lost a great deal of muscle mass -- doctors said he shouldn't exert himself. He didn't get back into shape, nor did he feel mentally better, until he transferred to the University of Arizona that fall. Despite working hard with the training staff during the offseason, Gardner thought he might never be a great pitcher again.

"Going into the spring I just didn't have it yet," Gardner said. "Then I got into my first game, and everything just clicked."

Gardner, who had been drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2000, went on to have a stellar junior year with the Wildcats, finishing 9-3 with a 4.49 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 1081/3 innings. The Cincinnati Reds noticed, making him their sixth-round pick in 2003. It was quite a difference from his life a year earlier.

"If things had continued the way they did I might have said 'Hey, that's it for baseball,' " Gardner said. "But I got lucky to come back and play again."