WALLA WALLA — Eric O’Flaherty wasn’t surprised when his left elbow deserted him in May.
“I kind of knew it was coming,” O’Flaherty said in a telephone interview from his home in Bellevue late last week. “I had a little bit of stuff going on last September, and in the back of my mind coming into this year I knew there was not a good chance I would make it through.”
The former Wa-Hi Blue Devils pitcher, who has been a mainstay in the Atlanta bullpen since the Braves picked him up on waivers from Seattle in 2009, underwent successful Tommy John surgery on May 21. He’s on target to resume throwing in a couple of months, but he’s not expected to make it back onto the field in a game situation until May of next year.
“It’s usually a 12-month recovery period,” O’Flaherty said. “I was in a splint for 10 days and in a brace for about a month, but now I am free to do whatever I want — except throw a baseball.
“Tommy John surgery is not as complicated as it used to be, and the success rate is pretty high. It’s almost standard procedure if you play five to 10 years.”
O’Flaherty, who debuted with Seattle in 2006 after being selected by the Mariners in the sixth round of the 2003 amateur June draft, was in the midst of his seventh full season in the big leagues when he suffered torn ligaments in his left elbow. At the time he owned a 3-0 record plus 12 holds out of the Braves pen, with a 2.50 earned run average and a 0.94 WHIP.
O’Flaherty enjoyed his best season in 2011 when he posted a 0.98 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP while striking out 67 batters in 73 2/3 innings. The former Blue Devil’s 2011 ERA is the lowest in baseball history for a pitcher working 70 or more innings in a season.
Teamed in 2011 with fellow lefty Jonny Venters and rookie right-hander Craig Kimbrel, O’Flaherty was a key cog in one of the most efficient bullpens in baseball history.
Venters, who usually pitched the eighth inning after O’Flaherty worked the seventh, struck out 96 batters in 88 innings while posting a 1.84 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. Kimbrel, the Braves closer who would go on to be named the NL Rookie of the Year, finished with a 2.10 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP while striking out an amazing 127 batters in 77 innings. And he led the National League with 46 saves.
Ironically, Venters began the 2013 season on the disabled list and never threw a single pitch before also undergoing Tommy John surgery on May 16, five days before O’Flaherty went under the knife.
“It’s nice to have a buddy to go through the whole thing with,” O’Flaherty said, noting that he and Venters have been rehabbing together in Atlanta. When the team is in town, they go to Turner Field for therapy, and when the team is on the road they rehab at a facility about 20 minutes from the stadium.
“It’s kind of boring, but I’m doing all right with it,” O’Flaherty said.
When the Braves took to the road for seven consecutive games following the four-day All-Star break, O’Flaherty had the opportunity to return to his offseason home in Bellevue for nine days before returning to Atlanta on Friday.
“It was great to go home, see my family and decompress,” O’Flaherty said. “It was good to get out of the old routine.”
O’Flaherty didn’t make it to Walla Walla, but his parents, Bill and Georgia O’Flaherty, made the drive over to Bellevue.
“We got out to the beach on Lake Washington,” Eric said. “We just hung out and barbecued. It was really nice.”
Meanwhile, the Braves are in apparent cruise control as they lead the NL’s East Division by a whopping 8 1/2 games (prior to Saturday’s game against the Cardinals). And Jordan Walden, acquired by the Braves from the Angels in an offseason trade, and Luis Avilan, signed as an international free agent in 2008, have solidified the Atlanta bullpen.
Walden has recorded 10 holds while posting a 2.43 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. Avilan has a team-high 15 holds with a 1.35 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP. Kimbrel continues in his closer role with 29 saves, a 1.41 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP.
“It doesn’t look like they are missing me or Jonny too bad,” O’Flaherty said. “They have a few guys who have stepped up and done a great job. But that’s what you do on a team, pick each other up when you are struggling.”
But if timing is everything, O’Flaherty’s injury and subsequent surgery came at a most inopportune time in his career. He will become a free agent for the first time at the end of the season, and but for the injury he was in position to command a multiyear contract beginning in 2014.
Instead, O’Flaherty will probably have to settle for another one-year deal, either with the Braves or another organization, before he’s able to prove he’s once again healthy.
“Basically, you’re just pushing (free agency) back a year,” he said. “I just have to stay healthy next year and everything will be fine.”
And O’Flaherty is confident that everything will be fine.
“I’ve had a bone spur in my left elbow since the 2005 season, and I would say my range of motion right now is about 10 percent better than what it was before I had the surgery,” he said. “That might not sound like a lot, but in a pitching arm it makes a significant difference.”
And while free agency will allow O’Flaherty to sign “with anybody I want,” Atlanta is where he wants to be in 2014.
“You want to be somewhere you have had success and know everybody,” he said. “I love the people in Atlanta. They have taken care of me.
“We will see what happens,” he added. “They have a lot of good young guys in that bullpen, and I don’t know if they want to take that chance or not. Hopefully they do.
“But someone will take a chance. And in this case it’s not a very big chance, because I think that I will be even better than before.”