Baseball: Stagg alum T.J. McFarland finds home in Baltimore Orioles bullpen
By Steve Millar For Sun-Times Media April 15, 2013 8:02PM
Pitcher T.J. McFarland, of the Baltimore Orioles, throws to a Minnesota Twins at Camden Yards on April 6. | Getty Images
Updated: May 17, 2013 6:33AM
T.J. McFarland took the mound April 6 in a front of a packed house at Camden Yards in Baltimore and tried to soak it all in.
“It was just a great, incredible feeling,” he said. “Walking out on the field with 40,000 people in the stands, it was amazing. Knowing I had got to this point after all the years working, it meant a lot.”
McFarland, an Orland Park native and Stagg graduate, was terrific in his major league debut that night against the Minnesota Twins. The 23-year-old lefty worked 31/3 scoreless innings in relief, allowing just one hit while striking out five and walking none.
“That was just the topping to an incredible day,” he said. “The fact that I performed well. I just wanted to go out there and keep the team in the game with a chance to win and I did that — and we nearly came back and won it (in a 6-5 loss).”
McFarland was strong again in his second outing Sunday. Pitching at Yankee Stadium in front of a national TV audience watching ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, he tossed two shutout innings. He pitched around a hit and a walk and struck out three Yankees.
It’s been an impressive start for a young pitcher who didn’t know where he’d be pitching this season until four days before Opening Day.
The Orioles selected McFarland in December’s Rule 5 Draft, meaning they had to keep him on the major league roster or risk losing him to another team.
Baltimore’s bullpen was stacked.
“I didn’t really break it down to percentages and I wasn’t sure what my chances really were,” McFarland said. “I just wanted to go out there (in spring training) and showcase my abilities.”
On March 29, McFarland got the news that he was breaking camp with the Orioles.
“(Orioles manager) Buck Showalter came straight up to me, he shook my hand and he told me I made the team,” McFarland said. “It wasn’t dragged out at all, which I definitely appreciated.”
Later that day, word quickly spread that McFarland was a major leaguer. Stagg baseball coach Matt O’Neill, whose first year at the helm of the Chargers was McFarland’s senior season, got the news via text from a former assistant coach.
“It was a great feeling,” O’Neill said. “My wife said she knew just by seeing my reaction what was going on. She could tell by how excited I was that he had made it.”
McFarland is the first Stagg alum to reach the majors.
“It never really hit me that I was the first,” McFarland said. “It’s a great feeling. I definitely put in a lot of hard work to get here, but without Stagg I don’t think I’d be here either.
“Stagg was an incredible high school experience. I never went to college, so I have no college memories. Those high school memories mean even more to me. I was on varsity four years in a row and it was great. I’m excited to see the program doing really well now. They’ve upgraded all their facilities. I wish they would have done that when I was there.”
O’Neill isn’t surprised by his pupil’s fast ascension up the baseball ladder.
“You kind of knew just by watching him pitch once in high school that he had a chance to do something special,” O’Neill said. “Knowing the kid’s mentality and his work ethic, I knew he had a shot.”
Before the season, O’Neill was sure to grab tickets for the White Sox’s first game against Baltimore, set for July 2 at U.S. Cellular Field.
“Hopefully, we’ll get to see him pitch,” O’Neill said. “I’d love to make a trek to Baltimore to see him, too.”
McFarland signed with the Cleveland Indians out of high school after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 MLB draft. He spent five seasons in the Indians organization, reaching Triple-A Columbus last season.
“There was never really a time when I questioned whether I’d make it,” he said. “When you’re signed out of high school and you’re that young, you have time. I always felt like I’d make it here. One thing you need in this game is self-confidence, because it’s a game that definitely tries to tear you down.”
A starter his whole career, McFarland has settled into a role as a long reliever with Baltimore. He’s focused on the basics.
“The biggest thing for me is just my ability to stay in the strike zone,” he said. “The movement I have with my fastball is the other key thing, but the main thing is being able to get ahead of hitters.”
The Orioles recently showed confidence in their rookie reliever, trading veteran reliever Luis Ayala on Wednesday in a move that brought them to 12 pitchers on the roster and likely assured McFarland’s spot with the team for as long as he continues to pitch well.
“It definitely shows some confidence in me long term, which is nice,” McFarland said. “I know I still have to go out there and perform.
“I’ve fallen into my role here as a guy who can go out there and give some length out of the bullpen. My main goal is just to go out there and keep the team in the game no matter the situation.”