Now healthy, O'Day battling for bullpen job
With sidearm delivery, righty out to show he'll bounce back
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Professional baseball rosters from Rookie ball to the Major Leagues are littered with high school phenoms and college standouts -- top-ranked prospects foreign to failure and players with such natural ability that the very notion of not being the best is a culture shock, to say the least.
As a freshman walk-on hopeful at the University of Florida, Darren O'Day was cut from the Gators' baseball squad. He was done with baseball, not willing to go to a junior college as the program suggested, because O'Day -- an animal biology major with a minor in geography -- valued a four-year degree more than being a reserve pitcher.
It wasn't supposed to be a career revival that summer when O'Day's coworker needed a pitcher for his adult men's league, but that's exactly what it was. There in Starke, Fla., where O'Day's family rented a house on Kingsley Lake, he started experimenting with throwing sidearm. A traditional overhand pitcher his entire life, O'Day and his brother had occasionally messed around with different deliveries while playing catch in the backyard. But that summer, where games came with cigarettes strewn in the dugout and cans of Keystone Light beer on the bench, O'Day found his niche batting cleanup, playing shortstop and baffling 40- and 50 year-old men when on the hill.
"I guess it worked out pretty well, because I got to play pro ball," said O'Day, who decided the following year it couldn't hurt to try out for the Gators' baseball team again, and he went on to become a scholarship athlete, posting the lowest ERA on Florida's staff his final three years.
This spring, O'Day is out to prove once again that he shouldn't be overlooked as the right-hander competes for a spot in the Orioles' bullpen. Acquired on a waiver claim from Texas this winter, O'Day is finally healthy and eager for a chance to show that he can revert back to the form that saw him post back-to-back seasons with a sub-2.10 ERA.
"Last year, basically I felt like a pirate pitching with a peg leg," said O'Day, who returned from surgery on a partially torn left hip labrum in two months. "I couldn't use my lower body, and you don't have the same feel in your [landing] leg. I hated sitting on the side and watching guys play. I wanted to be out there with my friends, so I tried to rush back as quick as I could, and I don't fault anybody but myself. I just wasn't 100 percent."
Prior to the injury, O'Day had a 2.02 ERA in parts of three seasons with Texas, recording 104 strikeouts against 33 walks in 125 innings. His return was ugly -- eight earned runs, including six homers over 9 1/3 innings, and a second disabled list trip -- and O'Day was unsurprisingly left off the Rangers' postseason roster. Even thought they didn't have a general manager, the Orioles didn't wait long to scoop him up off waivers, as they announced O'Day's acquisition on Nov. 2.
"We didn't have a guy who had that look," pitching coach Rick Adair said of O'Day, who he saw plenty of in the opposing American League West dugout when Adair was with Seattle. "The durability -- historically -- is there, and it was important. He's a strike-thrower, holds runners, does a lot of things well.
"As much as he's pitched and the success he'd had, you've got to remember he's pitched for a team that won the division the last two years and went to the World Series [the past two years]. This guy can help you win ballgames."
O'Day's tenure with Texas started with a whirlwind game that seems more fitting of his Kingsley Lakes team than a Major League club. Acquired by the Mets from the Angels during the Rule 5 Draft at the 2008 Winter Meetings, O'Day was placed on waivers after pitching three scoreless innings over a span of eight days in April 2009. Figuring he had a few days off while in waiver limbo, O'Day headed back down to Florida, where he got an unexpected phone call while sitting down for lunch. Instead of going back to Anaheim, he was claimed on waivers by the Rangers.
Texas general manager Jon Daniels needed O'Day to get on a plane and get to Toronto, where the Rangers were in the second game of a three-game series vs. the Blue Jays. While O'Day was making his connection in Memphis, Michael Young was hitting a game-tying homer. Upon arriving in Canada, O'Day was summoned to the ballpark, where he was instructed to start stretching while still wearing jeans.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to rip off the lettering of old uniforms, O'Day rushed out to his new bullpen with a No. 30 jersey, complete with Kason Gabbard's name still emblazoned on the back. Five minutes and no more than a dozen warmup pitches later, O'Day was on the mound with the wrong jersey, meeting his catcher, manager and new teammates for the first time with two inherited runners in the bottom of the 11th inning. He promptly allowed a walk-off RBI single to Kevin Miller, a performance that "set the bar pretty low for my time in Texas," O'Day said with a laugh. "It could only go up from there."
Now on his fourth team, O'Day is hoping he has found a more permanent uniform. There is no shortage of Rangers ties in this year's Orioles camp -- everyone from manager Buck Showalter to Adair and a half-dozen players -- and his new club's construction has a familiar feel.
"This team reminds me of the Texas team when I first got there," O'Day said. "There's a lot of young talent. [They] just [have] to find the pieces to fit in there to help exploit that young talent and show them how to win."
O'Day's more immediate focus is being around for that success. The 29-year-old is aiming for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, a competition that could come down to contractual status given the O's wealth of pitchers who are out of options. O'Day, who has an option remaining, could make that decision a difficult one, given his unique skill set as he and Pat Neshek are the lone sidearms in camp.
"There aren't many people who can do what he can do when he's healthy," Showalter said of O'Day, who is able to defend himself against left-handed hitters better than most traditional sidearmers. "We don't have that guy. If he shows he's healthy, he could be a contributor for us."
O'Day, who is about 10 months removed from surgery, said he's feeling better than he has in years given that he had pitched with the hip injury for a few seasons before the pain became an issue.
"I'm healthy again, my stuff is moving like it should be," O'Day said. "Last year, I didn't have the full use of my lower half, so I think I'm primed for a good year. Two years ago, I did my job pretty well, and I'm ready to do that again."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.