Eric O’Flaherty didn’t think much of it at the time, but one of the biggest breaks of his pitching career happened when the Seattle Mariners decided after the 2008 season they didn’t need him anymore.
O’Flaherty, a Walla Walla native who the Mariners drafted in the sixth round in 2003, had just bought a home in Bellevue and was prepared to settle into a career with his hometown team. He’d gone through a tough season in 2008 — a back injury rendered him ineffective before he was shut down, and then the Mariners’ clubhouse upheaval added to the misery — but was eager for a fresh start in 2009.
He got it with another organization.
The Mariners put the left-hander on waivers, the Atlanta Braves claimed him and O’Flaherty quickly learned that there can be happiness elsewhere.
“It was kind of tough because I’d just bought a home here,” he said. “But at the same time, I thought if this team doesn’t want me, I need to go where somebody believes in me and it’s a fresh start. I went over to a real good, positive environment.”
O’Flaherty went 2-1 with a 3.04 earned run average in 78 relief appearances in 2009, then 3-2 and 2.45 in 56 games last year and, so far this season, was 1-2 and 1.27 in 38 appearances entering Monday night’s series opener against the Mariners.
How could he be so right with the Braves after struggling so much, especially in 2008, with the Mariners?
“It was a fresh start. It’s kind of what I needed because I had a lot of bad things happen in ’08,” O’Flaherty said. “It was one of those Murphy’s Law years. I got hurt in spring training (a back injury) and tried to push through it. I wasn’t very good on the field, so it was a stupid idea. I went down to Triple A and had too much pride to make excuses or say that I pitched bad up here because I was hurt. The whole thing kind of snowballed and by playing hurt the whole time, it turned into a bigger injury than it had to be.”
He wanted to bounce back in 2009 with the Mariners, but it was an organization headed a different direction after the 2008 season with new general manager Jack Zduriencik. Instead, he suited up with the Braves the next spring training and, after then-manager Bobby Cox spent a half-hour talking with him when he joined the team, O’Flaherty felt like a valued part of the organization.
“I don’t know if I would have turned it around (in Seattle) mentally,” he said. “It was good to get a fresh start and go into a whole new scene.”
He described his departure from the Mariners as a necessary wakeup call, although it didn’t feel so good at the time.
“It was definitely a shock,” O’Flaherty said. “I realized that just getting called up to the big leagues isn’t good enough. This can all be over pretty quick and you need to come up here and expect to perform and get it done.”
He has done it better this season than ever, becoming a key part of the Braves’ late-inning relief effort along with left-hander Jonny Venters and closer Craig Kimbrel.
O’Flaherty usually pitches the seventh inning when the Braves have a lead, which they have a lot this season. They entered the Seattle series with the third-best record in the National League and trailing the Phillies by five games in the National League East.
“Once we start hitting, I feel like we can jump right back up there with them,” O’Flaherty said. “We were ahead of them by up to six games last year at this time. We know we can compete with them and we always play our best against them. It’s really been fun.”
Figgins in the lineup — for a day
Chone Figgins has lost most of his playing time at third base to Adam Kennedy, but he started Monday night when manager Eric Wedge decided to give Kennedy a semi-breather by using him at DH.
“I wanted to get Kennedy off his feet,” Wedge said. “We’ve been pushing him pretty hard and asking a lot of him.”
It also was a chance — although an infrequent one — for Figgins to turn around his terrible season. He entered the game batting .188, had made a team-high nine errors and had become the target of booing by the fans.
“He hasn’t played a whole lot lately but he’s handled it like a pro,” Wedge said. “He hasn’t pouted about it. He’s been a man about it. When he gets the opportunity, he has to go out there and focus on his game and play. Hopefully that’s what we’ll see.”