O'Flaherty is Back - What a Relief

APPLETON, Wisc. - For Seattle Mariners pitching prospect Eric O'Flaherty, things could not have started out better. The left-hander was selected by the Mariners in the sixth round of the 2003 draft, and had success in the professional ranks from the outset. But the young southpaw ran into trouble last summer, as he struggled with a lower back injury that forced him to sit out the second half of the season. That same injury has been a major factor on his role for 2005.

O'Flaherty's first stop after being the 176th overall pick two years ago was the Arizona Rookie League with the Mariners' squad in Peoria .

In 2003, the Walla Walla, Wash. native was very successful, posting a perfect 3-0 record with a 1.95 ERA coming out of the bullpen. The Mariners promoted him to Everett in August, where he continued his strong start by winning his only decision and posting a 3.38 ERA. O'Flaherty was named Peoria's Most Valuable Pitcher in 2003, and looked to carry that success with him to the Midwest League the following year.

But it wasn't going to be smooth sailing.

The bump in the road began last season when O'Flaherty was sent to Mid-A Wisconsin, where he began the year in the Timber Rattlers' starting rotation. In his 10 starts, O'Flaherty went 3-3 with a disappointing 6.12 ERA. The notable control and consistency that he demonstrated the previous season was non-existent with the T-Rats, and it was clear that something just wasn't quite right.

O'Flaherty's season was cut short on June 11, when he was placed on the disable list for the remainder of the season with a muscle strain in his lower back.

"I think with him last year as a starter, it was something that with his lower back issues, it had more of a pounding effect on him," said Wisconsin pitching coach Brad Holman.

After a winter full of rehabilitation, a healthy and revitalized O'Flaherty found himself back in a Wisconsin uniform for this season, but in a different role this time. Instead of repeating the nightmare that took place a year ago, the Mariners altered O'Flaherty's job description for 2005.

"The decision to put him in the pen was because during his longer durations of time out on the mound it tended to bother him more and more," said Timber Rattlers first-year manager Scott Steinmann. "So where we're going to use him at this year is it's going to be one, two and three inning stints. We're going to keep his pitch count down and the sitting up and down between innings down and use him more frequently, and try to keep his innings up, because he is someone we want out on the mound."

This season will serve as a test for O'Flaherty, to see how well his back can handle the rigors of a full season. The coaching staff plans to keep a close eye on his health, while still giving him the opportunities to pitch regularly.

"We want to give him a decent amount of innings," said Steinmann. "But, when he's out there pitching we want to keep his number of pitches down and keep the number of innings he throws down. We don't want him going on [for] four or five innings."

With the coaches eying his pitch counts and inning totals on the mound, O'Flaherty should get the ball quite often in save situations. Due in large part to the impressive offensive club the Rattlers have turned out to be early on this season, there haven't been many save opportunities – yet.

O'Flaherty has, however, picked up one save this season, that coming in a 3-1 victory over Peoria in the home opener on April 7.

The uncertainty of the left-hander's future role isn't clouded by the organization's desire to hold him back in any fashion.

"It's a situation where time will tell," said Steinmann. "And if his body can get better, we'd like to get him back in the starting rotation. Down the road maybe, who knows. But right now, we're going to keep him in the bullpen for that reason."

Laid back, by nature, O'Flaherty is content filling whatever role the organization decides for him. But that isn't to say he wouldn't be thrilled to someday return to the starting rotation.

"I was a reliever my first year," said O'Flaherty. "It was never like the adrenaline you get coming out with the lights on and big crowds, like the games here."

The injury has been frustrating for O'Flaherty, but it has also helped him mature as a person. He accepts the fact that he will have to work harder than most to make up for his unfortunate back issues. But hard work and a good attitude are nothing foreign to the Rattlers relief ace.

"His injury is something that he's going to have to learn to deal with and battle through," said Holman. "And I think he understands that and he's got good work habits, good work ethic, and it's something he's not going to shy away from. He knows that's just part of his daily routine, getting that back loose."

Aside from his positive attitude towards the game and his tough path back to the pitcher's mound, O'Flaherty has another source or motivation; his family and friends.

Despite living nearly 300 miles east of Safeco Field, the promising southpaw was thrilled to be drafted by his home team back in '03, and would like nothing more than having his family and friends in the stands to watch him pitch in a Mariners uniform.

"My grandparents are from Seattle, so I spent a lot of time there going to Mariners games," said O'Flaherty. "I was always a pretty big fan. So it'd be really nice to get to my home state to play in from in front of my family."

O'Flaherty has taken the first step toward that goal, and the Timber Rattlers are already reaping the benefits.

Jeff Harrison can be reached for feedback at Jeffrey.E.Harrison@GMail.com.

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