O'Flaherty thrives in Atlanta's bullpen

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WALLA WALLA — The highlight of Eric O’Flaherty’s first season in the National League came during a four-game series against the Colorado Rockies last July in Denver.

O’Flaherty, the Atlanta Braves left-handed reliever and a 2003 Wa-Hi graduate, appeared in all four games during that Coors Field visit. He worked 2 1/3 innings, allowed one hit and no runs while striking out four and walking one.

And in two of those games, he retired Brad Hawpe and Todd Helton, a pair of dangerous left-handed Rockies sluggers, back-to-back to help preserve Braves victories.

"That was probably the highlight series for me," O’Flaherty recalled in a recent telephone interview from his home in Bellevue.

But another memorable moment had to be a June 21 game at Fenway Park in Boston when the former Blue Devil was ejected for the first time in his big league career for questioning plate umpire Bill Hohn’s strike zone. O’Flaherty’s ejection set off a minor brouhaha, and before the smoke cleared the lefty was joined by a pair of future Hall of Famers, Braves manager Bobby Cox and third baseman Chipper Jones, in the Atlanta clubhouse.

Jones, who had questioned Hohn’s interpretation of the strike zone during an earlier at-bat, believed the umpire "was looking for O’Flaherty" and rushed to his pitcher’s defense. But before he could get to the umpire, he was cut off by Cox, who wanted to keep his third baseman in the game.

Cox, who holds the major league record for ejections, quickly added to his total. And then Jones was gone as well.

"The frustrating part was that the game was on the line," O’Flaherty recalled. "And it pretty much cost us the game.

"But I guess you’re not too far out of line when you’ve got guys like that jumping in there with you."

But over and above the Colorado Series or the Boston blowup, getting back to the major leagues with a new organization in a different league after a forgettable 2008 campaign is what O’Flaherty will no doubt remember the most about 2009.

"Coming into spring training, I had two goals in mind after the way things ended (in 2008)," O’Flaherty said. "One was to stay healthy, and the other was to get back to the big leagues at some point in the season."

Staying healthy was something O’Flaherty was unable to do in 2008.

After a productive 2007 Mariners season in which he posted a 7-1 record and a 4.47 earned run average in 56 relief appearances, O’Flaherty began 2008 as a fixture in the Seattle bullpen. But as the team headed north for the regular-season opener, O’Flaherty’s back was hurting.

"I didn’t want to admit it at the time," O’Flaherty said. "But looking back, I was being hard-headed. I thought I could pitch with an injury, and it didn’t work out so well."

And it didn’t help when Mariners closer J.J. Putz was shelved with an injury the first week of the season and O’Flaherty’s bullpen responsibilities expanded.

"It was kind of a closer role," he recalled. "It was between Mark Lowe and Sean Gren and myself, matching up depending on who was going to be coming up in the lineup. Just finding a way to finish the game."

And it wasn’t working out for O’Flaherty.

He pitched in seven games — 6 2/3 innings — lost one of them and saw his earned run average skyrocket to 20.25.

And before April was half spent, the Mariners demoted him to Class AAA Tacoma.

"I kept pitching, and my back kept getting worse," O’Flaherty said. "And then, about June 1, it got to the point where I had to take a break and they put me on the disabled list."

And that ended his 2008 season. After a lengthy rehabilitation period, he resumed throwing in October. Once he proved himself healthy by pitching in three pain-free bullpen sessions, the M’s attempted to slip him through waivers with the hope of keeping him in their minor league system until they were convinced he was ready to return to the big club.

"It was the smart thing to do," O’Flaherty said of the M’s decision. "With the season I had, the way I had pitched, it was not a bad move on the M’s part to try and sneak a guy through the minors."

But it didn’t work.

As O’Flaherty remembered, it was just after a workout in early November. He turned his phone on and had eight email messages flashing.

"I knew right then that something was up," he said.

He had been claimed by the Atlanta Braves. He was heading to the National League.

And it wasn’t a total surprise, either.

"The Braves had scouted me when I was still in high school," O’Flaherty said. "And they had tried to trade for me in 2007."

So O’Flaherty headed for spring training in Orlando, Fla., hopeful that his back injury was completely healed and determined to impress the Atlanta brass.

"I really didn’t expect to make the opening-day roster," he said. "But my agent told me that Bobby (Cox) likes pitchers who throw strikes, so I went into camp making sure I didn’t walk anybody."

And other than one bad spring outing, O’Flaherty pitched well enough to survive the cut and make the big league roster.

So far, his National League experience has been nothing short of satisfying. In 78 relief appearances in 2009, O’Flaherty logged a 3.04 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in 56 1/3 innings. He finished with a 2-1 record and 15 holds, striking out 39 and walking 18.

Not having to face the American League’s designated hitters was probably the biggest difference in switching to the NL, the 24-year-old said.

"There are also a lot of double switches and you wind up getting into a lot more games," he said. "And you also get some breaks facing pitchers."

And then there’s also the opportunity to hit as a National League pitcher, which O’Flaherty got to experience exactly once. It was against the Houston Astros, and O’Flaherty doesn’t remember the pitcher’s name.

"He was a sidearmer, and I don’t think he knew who I was or that I was a pitcher. He threw me all sliders and struck me out."

Travel in and out of Atlanta is also a bennie, the pitcher said.

"It’s much easier than in the American League West," O’Flaherty said. "It’s mostly one-hour flights rather than five-hour flights, which is a lot nicer."

The downside is being so far from his home. Eric’s parents, Bill and Georgia O’Flaherty, still live in Walla Walla, And they took somewhat different views of their son’s relocation.

"My dad looked at it more from a business perspective," the pitcher said. "He wished me good luck, told me to keep my head up and keep working hard.

"Mom has been in love with the Mariners since I was about 10 years old and it kind of threw her for a loop not having her son on the team any more. She didn’t know whether to be mad at the Mariners, or what. It gave her a lot of different emotions."

But O’Flaherty isn’t about to cut his Northwest ties. He bought a home in Bellevue just a month or so before he was placed on waivers by Seattle, and he has maintained friendships with some of his former Mariners teammates.

"I still love it in Seattle," he said. "I root for those guys. I still have buddies there. It just didn’t work out for me, but there are no hard feelings."

After an off-season vacation in Hawaii with his significant other, Heather Gualco, and spending the holidays in Walla Walla, O’Flaherty plans to head back to Orlando in January and begin preparations for the 2010 campaign. Although he’s still competing on a year-to-year basis for a contract, he’s far more confident than he was a year ago.

"I still need to have a good spring training to make the team, but I am in a lot better shape than last year," he said. "I feel like I am in pretty good shape."

And he’s glad to be in Atlanta with a team that he believes is poised to contend in the tough National League East.

"I think we’re a solid team," O’Flaherty said. "The team that finished the year was a lot different than when we started. We got better. If we had had that team all year long, I think we would have made the playoffs."

All in all, 2009 has been good for O’Flaherty.

"I knew it was going to be a challenge, and it was," he said. "I think it went well. I am pretty proud of myself the way things went."

Walla Walla is proud of its big league pitcher, too.

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