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Expecting surgery, O'Flaherty tries to find positives

ATLANTA -- As Eric O'Flaherty's left arm occasionally bothered him over the past few weeks, he was hopeful he could battle through it, like he had during last season's final month. But O'Flaherty's greatest fear was realized Saturday, when an MRI exam revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.

"It's been happening on and off for a little while," O'Flaherty said. "I've known since about September that something probably wasn't right, but I felt like I could push through it. I had some flexor tendon stuff going on last week or something like that, so they decided to do the MRI, and that's where it showed the tear."

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When O'Flaherty visits Dr. James Andrews on Monday, he will cling to the slim hope that he is dealing with an old tear that he could continue to pitch with after resting for at least a couple of weeks. But he understands he is likely destined for Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and the 12-month rehab process that will follow.

"I'm trying to be optimistic, but they're making surgery appointments already," O'Flaherty said. "I don't know, it's not looking too good. The vibe I'm getting from doctors and the front office and stuff, it seems like they're not too optimistic."

O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters have developed a close bond while serving as the top setup men to Braves closer Craig Kimbrel the past few years. If expectations prove true, they will spend the next year experiencing the long recovery from Tommy John surgery together.

Venters underwent his second Tommy John surgery in eight years on Thursday.

"It was tough finding out the news about Jonny after everything he's done here, and same thing for me," O'Flaherty said. "I was sick pretty much all day yesterday thinking about it, but it's part of the game. It seems like now it's just kind of standard procedure. Almost everybody goes through [Tommy John surgery], and the success rate is so high. It's not the worst news you could get."

O'Flaherty's dedication and determination have enabled him to overcome back problems that plagued him early in his career. The 28-year-old reliever has posted a 1.99 ERA in the 295 appearances he has made since joining the Braves in 2009. With the 0.98 ERA he recorded in '11, he became the first Major League pitcher with a sub-1.00 ERA while making at least 70 appearances.

When O'Flaherty experienced some discomfort late last year, an MRI exam showed what he described as "normal wear and tear." The Braves nixed their plan to do a more conclusive exam at the end of the season after he surrendered only four hits in the 10 2/3 scoreless innings he pitched in September.

"We just figured it was fine, and it was probably an old injury and nothing to worry about," O'Flaherty said. "In my opinion, even now, I've still been able to get people out and throw well."

O'Flaherty allowed two earned runs and surrendered six hits in the 11 2/3 innings he threw in April. But he was not as effective while surrendering six hits and allowing three runs in the 6 1/3 innings he completed this month.

"When you're working through pain every day trying to get the body ready, there's a sense of relief that you're not going to have to deal with that anymore if surgery is what I need, and that's what it's looking like right now," O'Flaherty said. "At the same time, you never want to hear anything like this."

Atlanta Braves, Eric O'Flaherty