ANAHEIM -- Bobby Wilson could have been in the car.
It was April 9, just after midnight, and Nick Adenhart and three friends were seated at an intersection in nearby Fullerton.
Wilson was in Salt Lake, having been dispatched four days earlier to Triple-A with the final Angels cuts.
April 8 was his 26th birthday, and the catcher was feeling so good having heard that Adenhart -- one of his best friends -- had pitched six scoreless innings against the Athletics in his season debut.
"Had I been there," Wilson was saying on Wednesday, the eve of the Angels' American League Division Series against Boston, "there's no saying for sure, but I was doing everything else with Nick. I probably would have been celebrating with him, excited for him. Without a doubt."
Wilson was devastated when news arrived that his friend had perished along with Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson, and that only one passenger -- Jon Wilhite -- had survived when their vehicle was broadsided by a drunken driver now facing multiple murder charges.
"Nick had so much ahead of him," Wilson said. "I would have taken his place in a heartbeat."
When he was named by manager Mike Scioscia on Sunday to the Angels' 25-man American League Division Series roster as a third receiver in support of Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli, Wilson was moved on many levels.
He thought about Adenhart, the kid with the golden arm and quirky sense of humor, and what it would mean to him to see him in this role.
"It feels like I'm in his spirit in a way," Wilson said. "It's like I'm not alone. It kind of feels like I'm playing with Nick in my heart.
Angels at a glance
2009 record: 97-65 2008 record: 100-62 AL West champs
"He's always going to be with me. It almost feels like we're a team, doing this together."
In Salt Lake in 2008 and at Double-A Arkansas in 2007, Wilson, outfielder Brad Coon and Adenhart were virtually inseparable.
"We did everything together, Nick, Brad and me," Wilson said.
In the season's opening week, it appeared Adenhart, 22, finally had his big shot in the Angels' rotation and was going to tap into his many gifts. Wilson was convinced his buddy was on the threshold of a breakout year.
"Nick was just so good, such an amazing talent," Wilson said.
Then came the unspeakable news.
In a season that began with such heartbreak and despair, with mourning the imponderable, Wilson moved forward day by day, doing what he knew Adenhart would have wanted.
He played the game they loved with passion.
"Obviously, something like that gives you a new perspective, a new way of looking at things," Wilson said. "Really, this is just a game. I think that has helped me, putting things in the right perspective.
"I've been able to go out and play a little bit freer, playing with enjoyment instead of the pressure. You can enjoy it more, because at the end of the day, you have your family and friends and your health, that's all that really matters."
Recalled by the Angels from Salt Lake on May 12 - he'd had one hit and an RBI in six at-bats in 2008 -- Wilson was drawn first to Adenhart's locker, preserved in the clubhouse.
Wilson then paid a private tribute to the wall in center field, where Adenhart's image, throwing a pitch, is etched. Wilson would revisit it on the night the Angels clinched the division title against Texas, leading a celebrative charge to the wall.
"Whether it's Nick saying, `Check me out' or whatever, it definitely helps to go out there," Wilson said.
Adenhart's locker has been maintained as it was when he departed late on the night of April 8.
"If I imagined how Nick would have left his locker, that's how it would have looked," Wilson said. "That was one of the first things I noticed. It's nice to see the guys are keeping his legacy going. It means a lot to his family that the guys keep it going."
Wilson, who maintained contact with Adenhart's family, is familiar with the Angels' pitchers, having caught them in Spring Training and also for 24 innings in three separate stints this season.
His catcher's ERA of 3.00, in a relatively small sample, is even better than those of Mathis (3.99) and Napoli (4.86).
Wilson saved a game for John Lackey in Oakland, blocking a pitch in the dirt that would have given the A's the winning run. He also excelled behind the plate in a late-game role in Boston in mid-September. Wilson is 1-for-5, a double, with a sacrifice in six at-bats.
"If you don't like Bobby Wilson," Lackey said, "there's something wrong with you. He's a great guy."
With Wilson available to replace Mathis, Napoli can be withheld for late-game pinch-hitting opportunities.
"Bobby's come a long way," Scioscia said of the Dunedin, Fla., native who played at Seminole High School with former Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman. "He's a terrific receiver -- good hands, good mind back there, strong, accurate arm that can control a running game.
"He's worked very hard to turn himself into a Major League catcher. I wouldn't hesitate to use him."
Wilson was drafted in the 48th round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft and signed by Tom Kotchman, Casey's dad. Not many players taken that late make it to the big leagues.
Here clearly is a committed athlete, forging on in the memory of a best buddy.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.