PHOENIX -- Jordan Walden never expected this, never envisioned this scene playing out in his wildest dreams.
"I'm still in shock," the Angels' rookie reliever said.
The 23-year-old Texan was seated in a large room full of American League All-Stars on Monday morning in an upscale Phoenix hotel, "soaking it all in." To his immediate right sat teammate Howard Kendrick, fielding questions as confidently as he does ground balls in his first All-Star experience. Kendrick has been gradually chipping away at stardom, blossoming fully this season as a total player.
With Walden, it was another story altogether. This whole deal was hard to comprehend for the kid from Fort Worth.
He certainly never expected to be an All-Star this summer, just as he never expected to be part of a youth movement helping the Angels surge back into contention in the AL West after a dismal start.
"It's crazy," said Walden, a young man of few words and fastballs that travel 100 miles per hour. "I never thought this would happen. There's so much going on ... the truth is, I'm having a hard time believing I'm here."
Walden was the choice of Texas manager Ron Washington to replace Mariano Rivera, arguably the best ever to work the ninth inning of Major League games.
Washington, who chose Angels ace Jered Weaver as his starter, said he expects to employ veteran right-hander Jose Valverde of the Tigers as his closer on Tuesday night at Chase Field against the National League. But Washington, as an AL West rival, is keenly aware of Walden's talents and wouldn't hesitate to use him in spite of his inexperience.
In 38 innings this season, Walden has notched 41 strikeouts with a 1.18 WHIP, yielding 28 hits and 17 walks. He is 2-2 with a 2.84 ERA, nailing down 20 saves in 26 chances.
His selection to the AL pitching staff is the latest aspect of Walden's self-described "crazy" story that began this spring as he surveyed an Angels clubhouse chock full of lively arms, wondering if he'd be one of the lucky ones on the 25-man roster on Opening Day.
He'd pitched effectively in a brief exposure to the AL in September, but there were free agents (Scott Downs, Hisanori Takahashi) on the scene, along with a wide range of veterans and young arms competing for roles.
"I just hoped I'd be there on Opening Day," Walden said. "I didn't know [manager Mike] Scioscia would have all these young dudes on his team. I never thought this would happen."
A strong spring earned Walden a setup role, and when veteran Fernando Rodney struggled with his command in the opening week, Scioscia didn't hesitate. Walden became the Angels' closer, and he's been their closer ever since.
"One of the guys -- I think it was Carlos Quentin -- came up and said, `How's it goin', Walden," Walden said, grinning. "I don't know if he even knows my first name."
Hitters have taken to calling Walden a lot of names, Jordan not among them.
To go with his 99-101 mph heater, the 6-foot-5 right-hander unleashes a wicked slider. When he has both pitches working, he can be as dominating and intimidating as any reliever around.
"Jordan has great stuff, and he's not afraid," said Kendrick, a young veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday as he suits up as a backup to Robinson Cano at second base. "All these young guys have come up and done a great job for us. I think it says a lot about our system -- our scouts and development people -- that these young guys are all playing so well."
Center fielder Peter Bourjos is a Gold Glove candidate, one of the game's most exciting talents in his first full season at 24. Bourjos' hamstring strain gave super prospect Mike Trout an opportunity to get a taste of big league life before the break, and the 19-year-old New Jersey product showed why he's considered a future star with his blazing speed, instinctive feel for the game and abundant physical gifts.
Mark Trumbo, taking the sting out of Kendrys Morales' loss for the season, has 17 home runs at the break -- about the same number that would have been anticipated from Morales. Trumbo has matured in his approach and figures to be bashing balls in the heart of the order for years to come.
Catcher Hank Conger, sharing the job essentially with veteran Jeff Mathis, has power from both sides and developing skills behind the plate. His is the toughest position on the field to master -- and to satisfy the master of the trade, Scioscia -- but Conger has shown rare aptitude. His ceiling is high.
And, finally, there is Tyler Chatwood, showing uncommon poise and stuff at 21. The compactly-built right-hander from nearby San Bernardino County was not at all overwhelmed by the pressures of replacing fifth starter Scott Kazmir.
Other youngsters, such as Trevor Bell, Michael Kohn and Bobby Cassevah, have pitched in with solid work out of the bullpen.
"You know I'd never call myself a leader," said Kendrick, the Angels' leading hitter at .302 with a .462 slugging mark and .360 on-base percentage. "But I'm having more guys come up and ask me questions than I have before.
"I can tell them I've been there in certain situations. I had disappointments, got sent down to the Minors in '09. You have to learn to trust yourself and your talents. That's what all these young guys are doing now.
"It's really exciting to see Jordan and Trumbo, Peter, Hank, Tyler, all these young guys coming through for us."
One is even an All-Star. One shocked All-Star.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.