Trading the sands of Florida’s beaches for the those of the Arizona desert wasn’t the only major change in big league pitcher Eric O’Flaherty’s life during baseball’s off season.
The 2003 Wa-Hi graduate also tied the knot.
O’Flaherty and Heather Gualco, who met in Seattle during the left-handers time with the Mariners, were married on Dec. 15 in Kirkland.
“We’ve been together since 2006, so I guess the wedding was long overdue,” O’Flaherty said. “We’ve had a great relationship all along, and this will mean a little less stress on her end.”
O’Flaherty’s other big move was to say goodbye to the Atlanta Braves and hello to the Oakland Athletics. As a free agent for the first time in his professional career, he signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the A’s in January.
So instead of spending spring training in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., O’Flaherty is back where his professional baseball career began in Phoenix, Ariz.
Originally drafted by the Mariners right out of high school, the lefty reliever made a name for himself working out of the Braves bullpen during his five seasons in Atlanta. Pitching mostly in front of All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, O’Flaherty posted a 13-7 won-lost record, chalked up 207 holds and struck out 199 batters in 249 1/3 innings on the mound.
Most impressive of all, O’Flaherty strung together earned run averages of 3.04, 2.45, 0.98, 1.73 and 2.40. That 0.98 mark in 2011 is the lowest single-season ERA in major league history for a pitcher with a minimum of 70 appearances.
O’Flaherty’s career ERA over eight major league seasons stands at 2.85. He has struck out 245 batters in 319 1/3 innings, his career WHIP is a scintillating 0.944 and his won-lost record is 20-9.
But O’Flaherty’s big league career hit a brick wall on May 17 of last year in Atlanta when he left a game against Los Angeles after yielding an eighth-inning home run to the Dodgers’ Steve Van Slyke. O’Flaherty’s left elbow was aching, and though he didn’t know it at the time his season was over.
The pitcher was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and three days later he underwent Tommy John surgery. O’Flaherty has been rehabilitating his valuable left arm ever since and isn’t expected to make his Oakland debut until sometime after the All-Star break.
“The rehabilitation has been going awesome,” O’Flaherty said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “I can’t even tell that I have had surgery. I’m throwing from 150 feet — long toss — with something on it. I think I am going to be starting bullpens in a couple of weeks.”
Nevertheless, coming back from Tommy John is a lengthy and sometimes painful process.
“There was about six weeks worth of range of motion, with trainers straightening and flexing my arm to get full range of motion,” O’Flaherty said. “That was pretty painful.
“Then there was about two weeks of (exercising) full range of motion because there was a lot of swelling and pressure. And four months of pure shoulder and elbow exercises.
“After that I started to light toss, beginning at 30 feet and slowly moving back over time. I was throwing one day on, one day off, starting in January, and that was pretty boring.”
O’Flaherty enjoyed his years in Atlanta and had expressed a strong desire to come to terms with the Braves on a new contract. For whatever reasons, that didn’t happen.
“There were a lot of other teams interested,” O’Flaherty said of dipping his toes into the free-agent market for the first time. “The main thing for me was trying to play for a competitor, because it is brutal being on a losing team. That was important to me, and I told my agent it was a priority.”
And knowing that at best he would miss the first half of the 2014 season, it was also important to find a team willing to offer a multi-year contract. Because O’Flaherty will need 2015 to prove that he is all the way back from Tommy John.
“Oakland came with a two-year deal,” O’Flaherty said. “And they were the best choice of teams with a two-year offer.”
O’Flaherty is particularly pleased with Oakland’s philosophy on handling injured players.
“It is really cool because they are not in a rush to get me back on the field this year,” he said. “They want to do it right. There are a ton of teams who will put you out on the mound as soon as possible, even in April.
“The A’s are being really smart about it and doing it right, and that’s really a nice thing for the player. You don’t want to do something to cause you to reinjure your arm or for it to not heal right.
“I want to get back as soon as possible,” he said. “But you have to be smart and not rush it.”
Still and all, now that spring training is drawing to a close and the regular season is about to begin, O’Flaherty can’t deny that he’s itching to get back in the swing of things.
“This has been a really tough time of the year,” he said. “Watching all the guys going at full strength and getting after it, hungry.”
It’s reassuring, O’Flaherty said, that the A’s, who are the defending American League West champions, strike a familiar note to the Braves, who won last year’s National League East crown.
“They really know what they are doing in the training room, and there is a real seriousness on the field,” O’Flaherty said. “It’s pretty similar to Atlanta in that respect.
“And the good thing for us is the West Coast. It’s a lot closer to home, and we will actually get to go home once in a while.”
The O’Flahertys, who recently bought a new home in Lake Sammamish, Wash., didn’t make it to Walla Walla following their December wedding. They did honeymoon in South Africa.
“We had done Hawaii and Mexico type trips and those wouldn’t have felt special,” O’Flaherty explained. “It’s hard to find great spots in the middle of December, but South Africa was right in the middle of summer.
“One of my wife’s friends lived there for four years and knows the ins and outs and all of the fun restaurants. She planned the whole trip for us.”
Now that he’s back in the American League,O’Flaherty is looking forward to pitching against his original team, the Mariners, who lost him to the Braves on a waiver claim in 2008.
“It’s going to be fun going back home,” O’Flaherty said. “And it’s looking like the Mariners are going to be more competitive this year. The whole division looks tough.”