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Gene Frenette: Braves submarine reliever Darren O'Day still finds ways to get batters out

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
After 13 Major League Baseball seasons, Atlanta Braves pitcher and BIshop Kenny High product Darren O'Day is grateful for his "charmed" career. The Braves take on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Nobody left in the Major League Baseball postseason could possibly be regarded as more anti-entitlement than Darren O’Day.

Thirteen years into one of the game’s most improbable journeys, the 37-year-old submarine reliever for the Atlanta Braves treasures every moment when a manager summons him to get batters out with his funky delivery.

O’Day, a Bishop Kenny High product who once seemed destined for a career either as a veterinarian or plastic surgeon after passing the FCAT exam, has instead been operating on batters since 2008 with five different teams.

“It’s a great story,” said former Bishop Kenny baseball coach Bob West. “Instead of Dr. O’Day, he’s baseball player O’Day.”

As the Braves began their NLCS matchup Monday night with the Los Angeles Dodgers, O’Day is well aware this could be his final baseball ride, depending on whether Atlanta picks up his 2021 option for $3.5 million.

Either way, the 6-foot-4, right-hander still marvels at the thought of getting to be a MLB pitcher after being cut from Florida’s baseball team in his freshman year (2002). On a total whim — after switching from overhand to submarine style while pitching in a Jacksonville summer adult league — nobody would have thought he could go back to UF and accumulate 23 wins and 20 saves over four seasons.

Or that O’Day, who went undrafted and signed for $20,000 with the Los Angeles Angels, would get to the big leagues in two years, just beating the deadline for him to enter medical school as his Plan B.

That in itself was remarkable enough. But O’Day kept adding to his unlikely rise to prominence, as if he was some fictional movie character like “Nuke” LaLoosh or Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.

He has pitched in 604 MLB games, compiling a 2.51 career ERA. Early in his big-league career, O’Day overcome torn labrums in his shoulder and hip. More recently, he missed 14 months from July 2018-September 2019 with a torn hamstring, and later an elbow flexor strain, before finally getting to pitch for the Braves. They had acquired O’Day in a trade he had to approve from the Baltimore Orioles while he was still in hamstring recovery.

“One of the first practices of [2019] spring training, I blew my elbow out,” O’Day said in a phone interview last week from his Houston hotel. “A lot of my friends had surgery on the same thing, so it could have ended my career. Many times last year, I was just sitting there trying to help the team, but I was just a guy hanging out in the clubhouse.

“There was always times where I’d be throwing a pitch, even in the minor leagues rehabbing, and I thought, ‘this could be the last pitch of my career.’ “

Now do you understand why O’Day, who posted a career-best 1.10 ERA in this COVID-19-shortened season, is grateful to just be in uniform for his 12th career playoff series? He’s already made three appearances this postseason. Though shaky in a couple outings, he’s still not allowed a run in 1 2/3 innings.

“It’s been a fun ride,” O’Day said. “I try to keep it all in perspective. I’m at the point of my career where I’m enjoying every day. Even if I don’t pitch well or got to be away from the kids, which is a tough time right now on families, I’m appreciative of each moment. It’s been a charmed career.”

This coronavirus-impaired season — where he’s had limited in-person contact the past month with his wife, television newscaster Elizabeth Prann, and their three children — is just another chapter in O’Day’s wild, fortuitous MLB ride.

In 2009, the setup reliever was so rushed into making his debut with the Texas Rangers, he had to wear another player’s jersey at a road game in Toronto, where he gave up a walkoff single in the 11th inning. But O’Day, undeterred by that awkward start with the Rangers, ended up proving himself as a big-league mainstay.

A year later, O’Day went 6-2 with a 2.03 ERA and pitched every postseason series for Texas, including the World Series loss to the San Francisco Giants.

Now, after pitching in 10 playoff games in three postseason appearances with the Orioles — and another seven playoff games as an Atlanta Brave in the past 13 months— O’Day manages to keep his career going despite a pitching style that eschews power for deception and guile. His fastball pretty much taps out at 87 miles per hour.

He relied on two pitches for a good part of his MLB career, a two-seam fastball and slider. Then O’Day developed a four-seam fastball, which is what really allows him to still hold a big-league job a week short of his 38th birthday.

“I throw [the four-seamer] at the top of the strike zone or above and that gets a lot of swings and misses because not too many guys throw it from my arm slot,” said O’Day. “As my career has gone on, I’ve pitched up in the zone even more because it’s proven to be effective.

“If you look at my numbers, I’m a better pitcher in the major leagues because I’ve figured out how to throw the high fastball that I wasn’t really allowed to throw in college. I had some great coaches at Florida, but conventional knowledge then was to pitch down and away, down and away.”

O’Day has almost a 4-1 strikeout-walk ratio in 576.2 innings, and that four-seam pitch has given him more confidence in getting out left-handed hitters. It’ll be interesting to see how Braves manager Brian Snitker uses O’Day against a Dodgers’ lineup with four every-day left-handed hitters – Max Muncy, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson – in the lineup.

Bullpens will be critical in this best-of-7 NLCS because there are no travel days. And each reliever, under 2020 rules, must pitch to at least three batters unless that pitcher finishes an inning. It’s possible O’Day, because of his submarine style usually being more problematic for right-handers, could be called upon to face the Dodgers’ most dangerous hitter, 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts.

“They might do that,” said O’Day. “[Betts] has such a short, quick swing, he can wait on a pitch a little longer than others. That’s an advantage for him.”

Whatever happens, O’Day intends to savor every moment as his wife and three kids watch from the Globe Life Field stands in Arlington, a ballpark right across the street from where he used to pitch in his Texas Rangers days. In a season like no other, O’Day won't get to have contact with his family until the season is done, but he appreciates another chance to play October baseball.

“During the quarantine period, I thought, ‘Is this World Series really going to count the same as the rest?’ “ said O’Day. “Oh, it’s definitely going to count. Not because we have a chance to win it, but because this is one of the harder seasons. The 60 games felt like 162 games, going from nothing with all the pandemic talk to a full-go.

“It’s been a grind. This World Series is going to be a hard earned victory for whoever gets it.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, O’Day has convinced his parents, Ralph and Michal, to not attend any postseason games because he doesn’t want to worry about them contracting the virus.

“I’m just hoping the Braves pick up his option so we can see him pitch one more time next year,” said Ralph. “We never knew how long [baseball] would last for him. The fact it’s been 13 years has been a blessing.”

For O’Day, getting an elusive World Series ring will be a challenge. The Braves are underdogs against the high-powered Dodgers, but at least one member of Atlanta’s bullpen knows all about persevering as an underdog.

As a submarine pitcher, Darren O’Day beat the odds a long time ago. He could have been a doctor, but sort of becoming a modern-day Kent Tekulve has worked out just fine.

Efrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540