By Chris Dugan of the Observer-Reporter
WASHINGTON, Pa. – When the Wild Things gathered for the opening of spring training 10 days ago, there were 20 pitchers on the roster and all but two of them had some degree of professional experience.
Of the two straight-out-of-college pitchers, one was among the first players released from camp. The other is a 5-11 left-hander from a Division II school in Connecticut. And if Brian O’Keefe continues to pitch the way he did last Friday night, he might beat the odds and make Washington’s roster for the Frontier League season opener Friday at the Gateway Grizzlies.
O’Keefe started and pitched four hitless innings in a 7-0 win over the New Jersey Black Sox, team of free agents who are playing exhibition games against clubs in four independent leagues this spring.
Washington completed the three-game sweep of the overmatched Black Sox with an 8-1 victory Saturday night at Consol Energy Park. Designated hitter Grant Fink had a two-run double and the Wild Things scored seven runs over the first four innings.
Wild Things manager Gregg Langbehn says he ranks his players at each position on a daily basis during spring training. It’s likely that O’Keefe made the biggest jump up the charts this weekend.
O’Keefe worked quickly, pitched with confidence, threw strikes and worked ahead in the count. In other words, he pitched like an experienced professional instead of a college guy.
“I knew there were a lot of pitchers in camp, and a lot of them have more experience than I do,” O’Keefe said. “But it’s like (Langbehn) said, everybody here is on the same level now. That has definitely been in my mind.”
O’Keefe, from Milford, Conn., is the all-time leader in wins and strikeouts at Bridgeport University. He had a big junior season when he won five games, had a 2.49 ERA and struck out 81 in 83 innings. He was the East Coast Conference’s pick for Preseason Pitcher of the Year entering his senior season, but had only a 3-3 record and might have led the NCAA with eight no-decisions. The other numbers were good, a 3.36 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings.
They weren’t enough, however, for O’Keefe’s name to be called during Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, though he had contact with some scouts and a team in the Can-Am League wanted him to pitch a game late in the season.
“I knew I could still play,” O’Keefe said.
So he went to the California Winter League and made a good first impression. The Wild Things, who had been in contact with O’Keefe’s coach at Bridgeport, signed the lefty only two days into the CWL.
“That took a lot of pressure off,” O’Keefe said. “I was able to use the rest of my time in California to work on some things.”
Those tweaks seem to be working as O’Keefe retired the first nine Black Sox he faced. He hit a batter to start the fourth inning, and issued a walk later in the inning, but escaped unscathed and with a no-hitter intact.
It was O’Keefe’s last chance to make a good impression before the roster is trimmed today.
“I’ve been throwing pretty well but there are still things to tune up. You always want to improve,” O’Keefe said. “(Friday) night was best I’ve thrown so far.
“Teams bring in more guys to camp than they need, so they can get the best out of everybody. You never know if this is going to be your last pitch or last inning. All I can control is what I do on the field.”