LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.-- After spending the past four seasons dealing with the daily frustration caused by his left elbow, Eric O'Flaherty has spent the first two weeks of the Grapefruit League season establishing himself as a legitimate candidate to open the season within Atlanta's bullpen."He's gotten a little better
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.-- After spending the past four seasons dealing with the daily frustration caused by his left elbow, Eric O'Flaherty has spent the first two weeks of the Grapefruit League season establishing himself as a legitimate candidate to open the season within Atlanta's bullpen.
"He's gotten a little better [with each appearance], " Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He's throwing some good breaking balls and his fastball has a little more life than it did. We just need to stay with him. I think he feels good, so that's just a good thing to just keep him out there. I think he's feeling healthy for the first time in a while."
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Braves fans certainly don't have to be reminded that O'Flaherty once stood as one of baseball's best relievers. The 32-year-old southpaw posted a 1.59 ERA over 198 appearances while serving as one of Atlanta's primary setup man from 2010-12. The only qualified Major League reliever to post a better mark during that span was former Braves closer Craig Kimbrel (1.46).
O'Flaherty's dominant stretch ended when he underwent Tommy John surgery early in the 2013 season. His elbow has since frequently caused problems, as he has produced a 6.18 ERA and totaled 78 2/3 innings since returning from surgery in '14.
After spending parts of the previous two seasons with the A's and Mets, O'Flaherty rejoined the Braves near the end of Spring Training last year and produced a 6.91 ERA while allowing opponents to compile a .385 on-base percentage in 28 2/3 uncomfortable innings. He was shut down in August to undergo season-ending surgery to alleviate the elbow nerve inflammation that was preventing him from creating full extension with his pitches.
"It's hard to argue with it right now," O'Flaherty said. "I don't want to get too excited because after the last few years, it's been easier to stay neutral. But the way things have gone so far, it's been great."
O'Flaherty has retired 12 of the past 16 batters he's faced and allowed just one earned run through his first 4 2/3 Grapefruit League innings. He has seemingly regained the sink he previously possessed with his fastball, and his velocity, which has ranged between 87-89 mph, has been a little better than it was during some of the previous Spring Trainings he experienced before battling the elbow problems.
"I told [pitching coach Chuck Hernandez] the other day I used to have one I could throw in any count, it was almost a get out of jail free card," O'Flaherty said. "I could get [a 3-2 count] and throw it right down the middle to a righty. The last couple years when I've tried that, it's been a ball in the gap. It's definitely been encouraging so far. Hopefully, I can keep it where it is."
When the Braves signed O'Flaherty to a Minor League deal in November, it appeared they might simply be providing a good guy a chance to give it at least one more shot to prove he could still pitch. But with Blaine Boyer and Chaz Roe struggling thus far, O'Flaherty has suddenly become somebody who could potentially fill one of the last available spots in Atlanta's bullpen.
"I know this organization really wants good things for me," O'Flaherty said. "That's where you want to be. I don't know if I fit in the plans here or not, but I know they would try to put me in a good spot. I know they want me to succeed."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.