By Chris Hirons
WASHINGTON — Joseph O’Connell stood out on the mound in a relief appearance on June 19 against Gaithersburg Giants with two outs in the sixth inning. He looked distraught, eyes wide with a blank stare. He had surrendered a two-run homer seconds before and was charged for his fourth earned run (eight total). The Harvard reliever bounced back to end the frame with a ground ball but as he walked off the mound, nothing seemed to be working for him.
He couldn’t locate his curveball — the pitch that gave him the opportunity to walk-on to Harvard’s baseball team as a freshman during the 2019 season — and had no feel for it. O’Connell, who hits the high-80s and low-90s with his fastball, isn’t able to generate swings-and-misses when he lacks command for his off-speed pitches.
After pitching a scoreless inning on Opening Day against the Silver Spring-Takoma T-Bolts, O’Connell’s next four appearances didn’t go to plan. He yielded a combined 18 earned runs over his next 8 ⅔ innings. He tinkered with his curveball, but ultimately couldn’t find the command for it after throwing off a mound in consistent game action for the first time since March 6, 2020, five days before the Ivy League canceled the rest of the season for all spring sports amid coronavirus concerns.
“I didn’t have confidence in my curveball earlier in the summer season at all,” O’Connell said prior to Friday’s win over the Gaithersburg Giants as the overcast clouds from a downpour began to disperse in time for first pitch. “I was missing high-and-low rather than on the corners. It was tough not having a feel for it, I was pretty discouraged.”
But that was all before a bullpen session with Grays pitching coach Andre Rabouin in between his three-inning, eight-run appearance against the Giants and a 2 ⅓ scoreless inning appearance against the Bethesda Big Train eight days later. Ravouin asked O’Connell if he had ever thought about throwing a slider, and O’Connell said that he used to throw one in high school but moved away from it after he was told he didn’t have the right mechanics.
“In high school, I would drop my elbow down more than I should have when I threw my slider,” O’Connell continued. “So, instead of fixing that, I switched to a curveball since I was able to come over the top with it.”
In relief of Tucker Alch (Catholic), O’Connell finally found the results he had been looking for on June 27 when he kept a one-run lead intact against Bethesda, undoubtedly the league’s leading offense. He struck out two batters and allowed a hit, walking off the mound towards the dugout to end an inning three times with more and more confidence each time.
He’s helped stabilize the bullpen in recent weeks, one was prone to surrendering big leads early on in the season. He and the Grays are finally playing their best baseball of the season — something that didn’t happen when the Ripken league canceled its season in 2020 because of the pandemic.
O’Connell agreed to play for DC last season, but that was before the pandemic, before he knew that the Ivy League would cancel its season in 2021, and before he knew that he would stay in his Nashville, Tenn. home instead of returning to school last year in order to maintain his two years of eligibility.
In order to stay in shape for the summer and Harvard’s 2022 season, O’Connell worked out with some of his friends on the University of Tennessee’s club team. He mainly threw off the flat ground and worked on his pitches in bullpens. Rarely was he up on the mound and throwing to hitters in a simulated game.
Only throwing off flat ground and in a bullpen rather for a year-and-a-half and then trying to emulate that in a live game situation? That’s difficult. In fact, he’s thrown more pitches as a Gray (364) than he has at Harvard (86).
“It was tough throwing off the ground and into a net while [Harvard] couldn’t play any games,” O’Connell said. “The curveball is a feel-pitch for me — and throwing it for a strike this summer after not throwing in a game situation is tough, real tough.”
It took him a while — six games — to find his command, but it’s arriving just in time, right as the Grays and their bullpen are tending in the right direction. And it’s not a coincidence. He’s able to throw a slider on any pitch in any count, and has allowed manager Reggie Terry to take a breath and have more confidence when pulling his starter.
“Having a second pitch is so important,” O’Connell added. “It allows you to mess with someone's timing and gets more swings-and-misses. There’s no better feeling than that.”
Terry has been able to thrust him into more high-leverage situations. Before learning to throw his slider, Terry moved him into a low-leverage role as O’Connell tried to fix his curveball. Ultimately, he wasn’t able to fix it, but now has a new pitch to lean on when Terry calls on him to lead the bullpen down the stretch. And with his slider, he’s able to generate swings-and-misses on his fastball, which he said is always a good feeling.
DC has eight games left on its schedule until the playoffs begin in two weeks, and if the Grays want a chance to play in the semi-final series, then O’Connell’s recent dominance (and new found slider) will need to play a major part in it.