ATLANTA — Eric O’Flaherty took the mound at Turner Field for the first time since May of 2013 on Friday night, only this time his view was a little different.
Still 60 feet and six inches away from home plate, he stared down the likes of his former teammates Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. In typical O’Flaherty fashion, he refused to allow a run. He was more concerned with how events would unfold after the frame ended.
"I mean, it’s weird when it’s somebody you know so well and you’ve watched play. It’s weird because those are your boys," said O’Flaherty, the lefty reliever who now owns a 1.50 ERA in 12 appearances with the Oakland Athletics. "At the end of it, you’ve got a game on the line. You’ve got no time to be emotional when you take the mound. It went by really fast, it was kind of a blur. It was awkward.
"Just glad I walked to the right dugout afterward."
O’Flaherty, who signed a two-year deal with the Athletics coming off Tommy John surgery, has welcomed his unexpected year of homecomings. He cherished the reunion of "O’Ventbrel" — joining Braves relievers Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters in signing the Sports Illustrated magazine that housed the feature their collective success spawned before the interleague series got under way — as well as the opportunity to joke around with Heyward after issuing him a walk in the series opener.
More importantly, the Washington state native has valued his return to the West Coast. And not just because he landed on perhaps the best team in baseball.
In the middle of his Tommy John rehab and his search for a free agency destination, the O’Flaherty family was dealt some terrible news. O’Flaherty’s mother-in-law, Holly Gualco, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Somewhere within the three-day window of learning the news, either that same day or the day before or after, O’Flaherty can’t quite recall, Oakland general manager Billy Beane called his agent. All of a sudden, the prospect of returning closer to home, the second-closest franchise to his mother-in-law, took on a new level of importance.
There were other possibilities, including Atlanta, but the decision was made: Oakland.
"We couldn’t have been in a better spot. (My wife, Heather, is) an hour and a half flight from home, she’s gotten to spend so much time with her mom," O’Flaherty said. "We played Seattle three games before the All-Star break and then we had the All-Star break, so I was home for the whole week. And her mom was feeling good enough to stay with us and go out to the water and everything. It’s been great."
But not easy.
While the rehabilitation process for Tommy John surgery, particularly the day-to-day mental grind, was one of his career’s most difficult periods, O’Flaherty said his family’s present situation has put everything into perspective.
"That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through just because in my life it’s always been any problem I’ve had you just work harder. Finding that out about my wife’s mom, it’s just devastating. I can’t do a thing about it. It’s the most helpless I’ve ever felt," he said. "So to be closer to home and get to spend as much time with her mom as possible, I mean, not knowing how long she’s going to be around or how her body’s going to respond to treatment, it was huge. It was a big blessing."
While Oakland was an ideal landing spot, O’Flaherty has not shied away from his fondness for the Braves organization, repeatedly calling it the best five years of his career in interviews over the past few weeks. Picked up on waivers from the Seattle Mariners back in November 2008, the Braves offered the left-hander, then 23 years old, a second chance. He developed into an All-Star and a staple at the back end of games, of course, holding a five-year ERA of 1.99 in nearly 250 innings pithed.
Only four other qualified pitchers posted a better ERA over that stretch: Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Koji Uehara (three teams) and former teammates Kimbrel and Luis Avilan. With Jonny Venters, the third leg of the O’Ventbrel trio, ranking eighth on that list, the Braves boasted three of the stingiest arms in baseball for a substantial stretch.
"I always said if I stayed in Seattle I don’t know if I ever would have made it back to the major leagues. That’s just how badly I needed a change of scenery, a different organization," O’Flaherty said. "The way they treat people here (in Atlanta) it just, I mean, it was night and day for me. Just walking in the clubhouse and having Bobby Cox come up and pull up a chair and talk to me for 10 minutes and just be real positive and encouraging. That was it.
" … I don’t know what would have happened if I stayed where I was. You never know in this game. One wrong turn and your whole career could be over."
It’s not over yet for his playing career. Since returning from his rehab, O’Flaherty has picked right back up where he left off in Atlanta. He’s allowed just two earned runs in 12 innings of work, striking out 10 batters and issuing only three walks. The Athletics have their lefty relief arm for the playoff run, and O’Flaherty has settled in nicely into his new home, family close by.