O'Flaherty plays part in Braves' bodacious bullpen

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WALLA WALLA - Eric O'Flaherty received some well-deserved recognition earlier this month in Sports Illustrated.

O'Flaherty, Wa-Hi Class of 2003, is pitching out of the Atlanta Braves bullpen and has emerged as a member of the most dominant triumvirate of relief pitchers in Major League Baseball history, according to the story by Ben Reiter in SI's Sept. 12 issue.

According to the Braves' blueprint for success, O'Flaherty is called upon to pitch the seventh inning, fellow 26-year-old left-hander Jonny Venters takes over in the eighth and turns the ball over to righty flamethrower Craig Kimbrel in the ninth.

As of the publication date, Kimbrel, a 23-year-old rookie and a leading contender for National League Rookie of the Year honors, boasted a 1.57 earned run average and a league-best 41 saves. Venters' ERA stood at 1.39 and O'Flaherty's was even lower at 1.15.

In all of MLB history, only 68 pitchers have appeared in a minimum of 60 games and posted ERAs of 1.70 or less. O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel all belonged to that exclusive club at the time the story appeared in SI.

The Atlanta trio's combined ERA as of Sept. 12 was 1.63 and considerably better than that of the Nasty Boys - Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton - who helped pitch the Cincinnati Reds to a World Series championship in 1990. That group posted a 2.28 ERA and was generally considered to be baseball's best 1-2-3 punch out of the bullpen until now.

Since the story appeared in Sports Illustrated, Kimbrel and Venters have both experienced a few bumps in the road. Kimbrel has now recorded 45 saves in 52 save opportunities but his ERA has jumped to 2.03. Venters' ERA has also risen to 1.69.

But O'Flaherty has been spotless. The former Blue Devil has reduced his ERA to 1.02 - the best in all of baseball for pitchers with more than 11 innings pitched - and his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) to 1.09. In 75 appearances he has a 2-4 record and 30 holds, with 65 strikeouts in 70 and a third innings pitched.

What O'Flaherty is most happy about, according to the SI story, is that he is no longer a LOOGY: Left-handed One Out Guy. Being used exclusively against left-handed hitters was a role thrust upon him during his first three big league seasons in Seattle, the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 2003, and during the last two years in Atlanta.

"Oh, man, that's a tag I've wanted to shake for so long," he was quoted in SI.

As of the SI publication date, O'Flaherty was dominating left-handed hitters to the tune of a .195 batting average. But he had faced twice as many right-handed bats and limited them to a respectable .230 average.

The one thing the back end of the Braves bullpen is lacking is a catchy name - like the Nasty Boys. So far the best anyone has come up with is "O'Ventbrel."

"We need something tougher than that going forward," O'Flaherty said. "The Nasty Boys is pretty cool sounding. We need something like that."

For now, though, they'll settle for a ticket to the playoffs, an experience Venters and Kimbrel enjoyed in 2010 but O'Flaherty missed because of an injury. But it's getting dicey.

As of the Sept. 12 SI story, Atlanta held an 8 1/2-game advantage over St. Louis in the battle for the National League wild card. But as of this morning, the margin had dwindled to 1 1/2 games, just one in the all-important loss column with a little more than a week remaining in the regular season.

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Walla Walla's other big-time pro athlete, T.J. Conley, is off to a good start in his first year as the New York Jets punter.

In two games, both of them Jets victories, the 2004 DeSales grad has booted the ball 11 times for a 39.4-yard average. Three of his kicks have gone into the end zone for touchbacks and three others have been downed inside the 20-yard line.

Five of Conley's punts have been returned for a 7.2-yard average. The longest return was 12 yards.

Next up for T.J. is Sunday's game against the Raiders in Oakland. This one will be special because T.J.'s parents, Tim and Laurie Conley of Walla Walla, are expected to be on hand to watch their son punt for the first time in a National Football League game.

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And speaking of former Walla Walla athletic standouts, I crossed paths with Tim Mitchell last weekend during a brief getaway in Portland. Tim lives in Tualatin and sells commercial real estate for Norris & Stevens Inc., a downtown Portland firm.

The younger brother of 1971 Wa-Hi graduate and local attorney Mike Mitchell, Tim graduated from Wa-Hi in 1981. Like his older brother, Tim also played quarterback at Wa-Hi, went on to play at Walla Walla Community College and then finished up his collegiate career at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Tim is particularly proud these days because his son Tyler is a sophomore football player at Tualatin High School, which lost to Aloha in last year's Oregon Class 6A state championship game. Tyler plays wide receiver and defensive end on the junior varsity squad, and he did get into last weekend's 35-7 varsity victory over Hillsboro.

Tim also has a daughter, Claire, a soon-to-be 13-year-old who attends Tualaty Middle School in Tualatin and, he said, is an aspiring hip-hop dancer.

"I don't want to leave her out," Tim said. "I am very proud of both of them."

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