Odds are O'Flaherty will have big year in 2011

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WALLA WALLA - If you're into gambling, you might want to put some money down on the likelihood of Eric O'Flaherty having a big year pitching out of the Atlanta Braves bullpen in 2011.

The odds, it seems, are in his favor. As in odd numbered years, that is.

After getting a cup of coffee with the Seattle Mariners in 2006, when he pitched a total of 11 innings, the former Wa-Hi Blue Devil left-hander enjoyed a breakout season in 2007 when he scavenged for a 7-1 record, a 4.45 earned run average and a 1.24 WHIP in 52 1/3 innings of work.

Those numbers solidified O'Flaherty's place in the Mariners' bullpen in 2008. But an ailing back - an injury that cropped up during spring training - derailed his season almost before it began.

O'Flaherty appeared in seven April games - 6 2/3 innings - before he was demoted to Class AAA Tacoma saddled with a burgeoning 20.25 earned run average. And he spent the remainder of the year in the minor leagues, most of it on the disabled list as he rehabilitated his back.

The M's, however, had no intentions of giving up on their sixth-round selection from the 2003 amateur June draft. But they were wrong when they thought they could slip the lefty through waivers during the off season.

The Braves claimed O'Flaherty, and in 2009 he found himself pitching in a new league in a new city. And he pitched very well.

The reliever appeared in a career-best 78 games that season, posted a 2-1 record with a 3.04 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. He struck out 39 and walked 18 in 56 1/3 innings pitched.

More of the same was expected in 2010. And for the most part, O'Flaherty delivered, notching a 3-2 record, a 2.45 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP.

But two separate bouts with mononucleosis limited him to 56 appearances and 44 innings pitched. And most disappointing of all, O'Flaherty wasn't on the Braves playoff roster in October when they lost to the eventual World Series champion Giants three-games-to-one in the National League Division Series.

"I had a real tough case of it," O'Flaherty said in a recent telephone interview from Atlanta of his battle with mono. "It effects everybody differently, and I came back after about a month-and-a-half. I should have waited longer.

"But we were in the playoff hunt and I was willing to do anything to get back on the field. I came back too soon, pushed too soon, and I had a relapse."

Missing out on his first opportunity to pitch in the postseason was a tough pill to swallow, O'Flaherty said.

"But I was in the dugout," he said. "I got to experience that, and it definitely makes you hungry for more."

O'Flaherty spent the off season in Bellevue, where he bought a home in 2008 just a month or so before he was claimed by the Braves. He made a couple of trips to Walla Walla where he enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents, Bill and Georgia O'Flaherty, and he vacationed in Mexico with his significant other, Heather Gualco.

And through it all, he worked hard on conditioning and regaining his strength for the upcoming season.

"I'm feeling really great," O'Flaherty said. "I worked out in Seattle with a group called Athletic Engineering, which is a different approach to training athletes that was really effective for me.

"I put on about 15 pounds - I'd lost a little weight - and I feel really athletic and strong. I'm chomping at the bit and looking forward to getting going again."

For the Braves, that began Monday when pitchers and catchers reported to Atlanta's spring training headquarters in Orlando, Fla. Position players are due in camp Friday, and the Braves' first Grapefruit League game will be played Feb. 26 against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.

Atlanta opens the regular season March 31 against the Nationals in Washington, D.C.

O'Flaherty sees big things for the Braves in 2011. And there is no place, he said, where he would rather be than in Atlanta.

"I love it here," he said. "It's a really good group of guys who like to hang around in the clubhouse talking and having fun. There are no prima donas, no egos, just a good group of guys who want to win.

"This is the best atmosphere I have ever been a part of in any sport."

The off-season acquisition of slugging second baseman Dan Uggla is bound to boost the Braves offensive lineup, O'Flaherty said.

"The main thing he will give us is a little punch from the right side," O'Flaherty said. "And that will mean guys like (Brian) McCann and (Chipper) Jones get pitched to a little more."

And rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman is expected to join second-year outfielder Jason Heyward in the Braves lineup this season, giving Atlanta two of the brightest young stars in baseball.

"Those two guys are both mature beyond their years," O'Flaherty said. "And they are both studs with good approaches and tons of power. Nobody knows how to pitch to them yet."

Another Atlanta newcomer this season is reliever George Sherrill, a free-agent signing who spent the 2010 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sherrill broke in with the Mariners in 2004 and was one of O'Flaherty's Seattle teammates in 2007 before being traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

"George is a good dude," O'Flaherty said. "I like him. We spent a lot of time together in the Mariners bullpen."

Arbitration eligible this off season for the first time in his career, O'Flaherty more than doubled his annual salary when he and the Braves avoided arbitration by agreeing on a one-year, $895,000 contract. Still, the ugliness of the arbitration process was not lost on the Walla Walla native.

"It was tough, totally different from what I expected," the pitcher said. "With no established value on anything you do, one side argues how important what you did was and the other side argues what you didn't do.

"You beat each other up. It's a grueling process. And the negotiations can get nasty when you go back and forth and argue about why it is and why it isn't."

O'Flaherty faces two more arbitration years before attaining free-agent status prior to the 2014 season. But he's not complaining.

"I'm definitely happy," he said of his 2011 contract. "Especially when you consider all the time that I missed."

For O'Flaherty, Atlanta's three-game inter-league series June 27-29 against the Mariners at Safeco Field in Seattle is bound to be one of the highlights of the season.

"I can't wait," he said. "I'm just hoping it's not raining. Because if the weather is crappy, my teammates will be giving me a lot of crap."

By then, O'Flaherty should be in the midst of another productive season as a Braves relief specialist. The odds, after all, are in his favor.

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