LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Before Eric O'Flaherty established himself as one of baseball's most dominant relievers from 2010-12, he earned his first spot on an Opening Day roster in 2009 after coming to Spring Training as an injury-plagued reliever the Braves had recently claimed off waivers.Fast forward eight years
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Before Eric O'Flaherty established himself as one of baseball's most dominant relievers from 2010-12, he earned his first spot on an Opening Day roster in 2009 after coming to Spring Training as an injury-plagued reliever the Braves had recently claimed off waivers.
Fast forward eight years to find O'Flaherty feeling the same sort of satisfaction reserved for heavy underdogs. Refreshed and revitalized from a September cleanup procedure that erased the constant frustration he'd encountered since Tommy John surgery, the veteran southpaw constructed the best feel-good story in this year's camp. His reward was provided Tuesday morning when he received confirmation he'll be on Atlanta's Opening Day roster.
"It's very similar," O'Flaherty said after the Braves purchased his contract on Tuesday. "Nobody was too excited when I came over here [before the 2009 season]. I came over with some back trouble and a 20-something ERA. That's the fun thing about baseball. It's a complicated sport where one little kink or one little adjustment can turn you from being terrible to really good again. … I feel like myself again and it's exciting."
While totaling 198 appearances for Atlanta from 2010-12, O'Flaherty posted a 1.59 ERA -- the second-best mark produced by a qualified reliever within this span, trailing only his former Braves teammate, Craig Kimbrel (1.46). He underwent Tommy John surgery during the second month of the '13 season and then spent each of the next three seasons dealing with frequent frustration while pitching for the A's, Mets and Braves.
After rejoining the Braves near the end of Spring Training 2016, O'Flaherty produced a 6.91 ERA over 28 2/3 innings and eventually underwent season-ending cleanup surgery in August to alleviate the elbow nerve inflammation that was preventing him from generating full arm extension with his pitches.
"I would have done [the surgery] a few years ago if I'd have known it was going to be that simple," O'Flaherty said. "But it's hard to wrap your mind around another operation after you go through that [year-long rehab] after Tommy John surgery. I tried to fight it as much as I could, but it's definitely night and day now."
Over the past few years, O'Flaherty was still physically capable of throwing his sinker, but he was limited in where he could spot the pitch. Enhancing his struggles was the fact that the limited extension significantly affected his slider and four-seam fastball -- a pair of pitches he once again confidently threw while recording 14 strikeouts and posting a 1.69 ERA over 10 2/3 Grapefruit League innings this year.
"Even playing catch the past two seasons was frustrating because I wasn't able to do what I wanted with the ball," O'Flaherty said. "It wasn't necessarily a velocity thing. It was more about extension and control. One big thing I've been able to do this spring is get back to the glove side of the plate with the four-seamer, and my slider has been night and day better than it was in the past. The past couple seasons, I was just throwing sinkers away and just hoping for the best. This year, I can pitch. It's just fun again."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.