Wednesday, June 30, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: O'Brien bona fide farmhand now

It's one thing to earn a paycheck playing baseball.

It's another to be a pro ballplayer.

For former Hidden Valley High School ace Mikey O'Brien, that transition -- more a shift in sensations than any literal cross of demarcation -- occurred 10 days ago.

Snapped up by the Yankees in the ninth round of the 2008 first-year player draft, O'Brien has been on the organization's payroll ever since. But it wasn't until June 20, when the 20-year-old right-hander took the mound for the first time at Richmond County Bank Ballpark on Staten Island, N.Y., that he truly felt like a minor-league pitcher.

The paid attendance that night was 7,171. That's roughly 7,150 more than the crowds who watched O'Brien toil in the Gulf Coast League heat the past two seasons. Among the unpaid spectators at this new venue: The Statue of Liberty herself, who peers over the outfield wall of the trendy park.

This was a bit more like it.

"Huge stadium, under the lights, big crowd cheering for you," O'Brien said by phone Tuesday. "It was a little nerve-racking at first. But once you throw that first pitch in there, it's the same game that you've always been playing and you don't even realize the crowd anymore. You just keep pitching.

"It's definitely a moment I'll never forget, though."

He wouldn't want to. O'Brien dazzled in his New York-Penn League debut, firing seven innings of two-hit ball. He allowed one unearned run and walked one while striking out four, leading the Staten Island Yankees to a 2-1 victory over Brooklyn.

O'Brien was nearly as good in his encore last Friday, holding Aberdeen to one run over six innings in a 4-1 Yankees win. Entering tonight's scheduled start at Aberdeen, he's 2-0 with 0.69 ERA.

His parents are driving from Roanoke to Maryland to watch tonight's start, marking the first time they've seen him pitch since he dominated the Group AA ranks as a high school senior.

It's not as though O'Brien hadn't been pitching since then, though.

He tossed 64 Gulf Coast League innings from 2008-09, but those games weren't exactly fan magnets. The matinees, played in Florida heat that reached triple digits, had a similar feel to extended spring training, where O'Brien spent the first half of this season.

"It's fun; it's just a grind," said O'Brien, who went 3-4 with a 5.06 ERA in the GCL.

"Every day getting up so early and practicing for a couple hours, then a game every day at noon. In that heat, it just really wears you out. But once you get through it, everything's good."

O'Brien learned a few things along the way, too. First lesson: The low-90s fastball and snapping curve that flummoxed prep hitters are useless if you don't locate them.

"I definitely had a lot of hard doubles hit off the fence off me, especially my first year," O'Brien said with a chuckle.

"It's just one of those things where you have to experience it firsthand, no matter how many people tell you that you can't throw that here. You have to be pitching and have it hit off you. It's kind of like a rude awakening."

O'Brien had hoped to open this campaign in a full-season league, but the Yankees opted to keep him in extended spring until the draft. He took advantage of the opportunity, working with his pitching coach to refine his curve and change-up and fine-tune his location.

"If you're throwing the ball up in the strike zone, they're going to hit it a really long way," O'Brien said.

"That's the main thing that I focused on this spring; I didn't care [about velocity]. I wasn't asking to see how hard I was throwing. My main focus was keeping the ball down in the strike zone, and that's where it's really paid off.

"I'm not striking out a lot of guys, but I'm keeping my pitch count down, which has allowed me to pitch farther in the game. I'm just making my defense work behind me, and they've been doing a great job of that."

For the time being, O'Brien and his teammates are living in the dorms of Wagner University. They're slated to move into a hotel at the end of July.

O'Brien -- whose only previous visit to New York came when he was in elementary school -- is just a ferry and cab ride away from Yankee Stadium, the destination he's trying to reach in a few years.

"I love it," he said of the city. "It's definitely a little different from Roanoke, but it's pretty interesting. I got to go to Times Square with a couple guys that had never been up to New York before, and we just went walking around and got to see all the buildings and stuff.

"It's definitely a cool experience. We're in the Yankees organization and we're getting to play in New York. That's awesome."

Even better now that he's a bona fide minor leaguer.

Read Aaron McFarling's Daily Sports Briefing weekday mornings at roanoke.com/sports

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