WALLA WALLA — Eric O’Flaherty’s 2012 pitching numbers out of the Atlanta Braves bullpen fell short of his mind-boggling 2011 season.
No big surprise there.
The idea of matching or improving upon a 0.98 earned run average, a 1.09 WHIP and 32 holds was an unreasonable expectation in the first place.
But after a rocky April and a so-so May, the Braves’ left-handed specialist from Walla Walla found his stride early last summer and turned in yet another outstanding season that helped Atlanta earn one of the National League’s two wild-card playoff tickets.
“To be honest, I am more proud of 2012 than I am of 2011,” the 2003 Wa-Hi grad said in a telephone interview from his Seattle-area home late last week as he made final preparations to head for Kissimmee, Fla., where Braves pitchers and catchers reported Monday.
“It was all smooth sailing in 2011,” O’Flaherty remembered. “Mechanically I was locked in from the get-go. I felt like I could do anything I wanted with the baseball. It was one of those seasons where I didn’t face any adversity.”
Not so in 2012, however.
“I faced a lot of adversity early on,” O’Flaherty said of last season. “I was just getting the ball hit all over the yard on me. I got off to a terrible start, and I’m proud that I was able to turn that season around and mentally grind it out and turn it into a good season.”
O’Flaherty was tagged for nine hits and a 4.91 ERA in 7 1/3 innings of relief work last April. He improved to a 3.18 ERA over 11 1/3 innings in May, then continued to improve in June when he allowed two earned runs over 9 2/3 innings (1.86 ERA).
The lefty was nothing short of sensational the second half of the season, yielding just one earned run over his final 27 innings. He struck out 23 batters during the final three months, allowed 19 hits and walked eight.
When it was all said and done, O’Flaherty posted a 1.73 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and a 3-0 won-lost record in 2012. And he led the team with 28 holds.
Which was all the ammunition O’Flaherty needed as he headed into his final round of contract arbitration with the Braves. And it didn’t take long for the two sides to come to an agreement.
The 28-year-old lefty inked a $4,320,000 deal over the winter that was his second hefty pay raise in as many years. After earning $895,000 in 2011, his third season in Atlanta, O’Flaherty and the Braves agreed on a $2,490,000 deal heading into the 2012 season.
“It’s always nice to see what the team feels about you,” O’Flaherty said of his financial gains. “The Braves feel the same about me as I do about them. They have been pretty easy to deal with these last three years, really classy. It’s a great relationship.
“Negotiations can get ugly and it’s best for both sides to try and avoid that and get it done as early as possible. And we got it done early.”
The next off season will offer a new set on challenges as O’Flaherty enters free agency for the first time in his career. A multi-year contract is the obvious goal, but the pitcher doesn’t believe he will feel any added pressure as he goes about his business in 2013.
“You’re always under pressure, and you can’t add to the pressure you feel every day, day in and day out,” he said. “If you go out and do your job, that is going to be good enough.”
Besides, O’Flaherty said, it’s more about effort and less about numbers.
“My goals are never numbers,” he said. “It’s more about effort and focus. I feel like if I prepare every day and work my butt off, at the end of the season, no matter what happens, I can be proud of that.”
After mostly working the seventh inning in front of fellow lefty Jonny Venters and right-handed closer Craig Kimbrell in 2011, O’Flaherty found himself from mid-May on pitching the eighth inning last season before handing the ball to Kimbrell.
“I’m guessing it is going to be a similar role for me this season,” O’Flaherty said of his eighth-inning assignments. “It really doesn’t change anything.”
O’Flaherty still sees himself as a potential closer down the road, but he chuckles at the idea of it happening anytime soon in Atlanta.
“It’s a tough spot to take anything away from Kimbrell,” he said of baseball’s top closer over the last two seasons. “That is pretty stiff competition. But it’s definitely a goal to be a closer, and if the opportunity ever arises I feel like I could do it for sure.”
O’Flaherty has high hopes for the Braves this season. The November free-agent signing of 28-year-old center fielder B.J. Upton and a January trade that brought 25-year-old left fielder Justin Upton over to the Braves from the Diamondbacks are two big reasons why.
“We have a pretty good looking team,” O’Flaherty said. “The Upton brothers give our lineup so much more balance. We’ve struggled with lefties at times in the past and I don’t think that is going to be an issue this year.”
The Uptons are both right-handed hitters. B.J is a career .253 hitter who has hit 118 home runs and stolen 232 bases in six full major league seasons. Justin has averaged .278 over five full seasons with 108 homers and 80 steals.
They will join a lineup that lost future Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones to retirement but retains right fielder Jayson Heyward (27 homers in 2012), first baseman Freddie Freeman (23), catcher Brian McCann (20) and second baseman Dan Uggla (19).
All of that firepower will support a starting rotation headed up by Tim Hudson (16-7), Mike Minor (16-11) and Kris Medlen (10-1 in 12 second-half starts). Veteran Paul Maholm (4-5) and prospect Julio Teheran will most likely fill out the rotation until Brandon Beachy (5-5, 2.00 ERA and 0.96 WHIP over 81 innings) fully recovers from Tommy John surgery that ended his 2012 season in June.
The Braves traded starter Tommy Hanson (13-10) to the Angels during the off season in exchange for Jordan Walden, who will provide another capable arm in the Atlanta bullpen.
After missing the playoffs in 2011 when St. Louis overtook them for the National League’s lone wild card on the final day of the season and then went on to win the World Series, the Braves qualified as one of two NL wild card teams in 2012. But once again the Cardinals proved to be the Braves’ nemesis, defeating them 6-3 in a one-game playoff at Turner Field in Atlanta.
O’Flaherty worked one inning of scoreless relief in the loss for his first taste of postseason play.
“That was fun,” he said. “Everything about that game was more amplified by outside factors — the fans, the media, the clubhouse.
“The one thing that I felt best about was that when I got out on the mound, I treated it as normal. There was a sense of calm and I felt totally in control. That’s always something you wonder about as a player.
“With everything amplified 20 times over, to stay calm and try not to do too much was a big test. And I am glad I passed that.”
The defeat, however, taught the Braves a different lesson, O’Flaherty believes.
“Losing to the Cardinals two years in a row is a tough way to end the season,” he said. “I think what we learned is that you can no longer count on the wild card as a way to get into the playoffs.
“That one-game playoff is a total crap shoot. You can play the worst-place team and still lose. The lesson we learned is to win the division. It’s not worth it to take a chance on the wild card because the odds are not in your favor.”