April 17, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Ask any baseball manager or head coach on any level and they will tell you that in a moment of uncertainty, they would rather have a trusted relief pitcher than a clutch pinch hitter. Often times that is because the team is typically winning with the closer on the mound, rather than counting on a pinch hitter to spark a comeback. For Penn State head coach Robbie Wine and pitching coach Jason Bell, the two are thankful to have junior Drew O'Neil ready on short notice.
Whether the Nittany Lions are in a position to close out a game for the win or in a tight situation with runners on, Wine and Bell know they can look to the bullpen and find O'Neil. Looking back, however, the pair will tell you that they were lucky to find him at all.
A Southern-state kid from Roswell, Ga., O'Neil grew up in nearby Kennesaw and began playing baseball in his early teeball years. But after a successful high school career and injury-plagued stops at Wake Forest and Young Harris (Ga.) College, O'Neil wondered if he was ever going to play the game again.
Enter Penn State, which believed that O'Neil had far more left in the tank - and the arm - and invited him to walk on the team. In less than two seasons, O'Neil has returned the favor by recently becoming the Nittany Lions' all-time career saves leader.
"I didn't know a whole lot about Penn State. I guess they needed a closer," O'Neil said. "Coach talked to me about a month before last season and asked me to come up. I think I have fit in pretty good."
An All-America candidate named to several watch lists for national awards, O'Neil found the exit on his long and winding road to the major leagues in State College. After one year at Penn State, O'Neil was drafted in the eighth round of last year's MLB Amateur Draft by the Cincinnati Reds.
To appreciate O'Neil's journey, you must first go back to where it all began.
Growing up in Georgia, O'Neil first began his path by just figuring out what sport he wanted to focus on. As a freshman at Blessed Trinity High School, O'Neil competed in football, basketball and baseball. A little soccer and track was thrown in there as well. By the time he was a sophomore, he dropped basketball and then decided to quit football the following year to focus on baseball.
During his junior season, several southern schools began recruiting him and his arm. O'Neil was letting his throwing speak for itself, but little did he know that in the months to come, he would be forced to speak for his arm.
The summer after his junior year, O'Neil injured his elbow, which in turn prompted many of the schools that were recruiting him to back off. Suddenly, this promising pitcher had baggage and questions lingered. Would his arm ever return to strength? Would he even be able to pitch again?
O'Neil spent most of his senior season rehabbing his arm and was forced to take the proactive approach of sending letters and videos to colleges. He heard back from Wake Forest and was offered a scholarship, but when O'Neil showed up on campus in the fall, things were uncertain once again. The coach that had recruited him to Wake retired over the summer, which left O'Neil forced once again to prove to another coach he was worthy. Things would get much worse.
O'Neil underwent another MRI on his elbow and the results revealed he needed Tommy John surgery. Devastated and forced to take a medical redshirt, O'Neil was told what he had long feared to hear.
"Coach told me I would probably never pitch at Wake Forest," he said.
Determined to continue his dream of playing in the major leagues, O'Neil opted for the junior college route, signing on at Young Harris College. He helped the Mountain Lions to a 48-16 record and the GJCAA championship in his only season with the team.
Still, it was a matter of his consistency that had only a few small southern schools looking at him.
"I was throwing inconsistent down there," he said. "One day I would throw between 88 and 90 (miles per hour) and the next day it would be 82 to 84."
Luckily for O'Neil, he acquired another advocate of his abilities in Young Harris College teammate Mike Deese, who Penn State had become interested in and successfully recruited. Deese convinced the Nittany Lions' coaching staff to take a look at O'Neil and they came down to Georgia to watch him pitch.
They liked what they saw.
"They told me they didn't have any money for me, so I came here as a recruited walk-on," O'Neil said. "I figured I'd give it a shot."
Penn State's Bell can appreciate the path O'Neil has taken and the manner in which he did it.
"It's a good story," Bell said. "He walked on for us last year, but he busted his butt after surgery and in junior college to get here."
With sophomore eligibility, O'Neil was named first team All-Big Ten last year after setting the single-season school record with 11 saves, an impressive four better than the previous mark. He earned a save in 11 of his 12 opportunities and went 26.2 consecutive innings over a 17-game stretch without allowing a run. Equally impressive in Big Ten play, he posted a perfect 0.00 earned run average and eight saves in 16.1 innings of work.
Not only did he gain the coaching staff's respect last season, he also earned a sense of reliability.
"Without a doubt," Bell said. "Especially in the Big Ten when you have a seven-inning game on Saturdays and you can make it a five-inning game. He basically he shortens the ballgame for you. The velocity and the movement he gets on the ball makes him very tough to hit."
When asked about what he likes about being a relief pitcher, O'Neil said he loves the pressure.
"I love being the guy out there with the game on the line," he said. "The more pressure there is, and the more the game is on the line, the more I raise my game. I love it when everything is on my shoulders."
After a successful 2007 campaign, O'Neil found himself with a little extra weight on those shoulders as he had to decide whether to return to Penn State for his junior season or elect to begin his professional career.
"It was a hard decision to make," he said. "It has been a dream to play pro ball. I felt like in the end, I would be better on several levels if I came back."
The decision also allowed O'Neil to finish his degree, something that Bell said was very important to both O'Neil and his family. The economics major is scheduled to complete his degree this spring.
Penn State has struggled this year and enters the weekend 11-21 and 4-8 in the Big Ten action. O'Neil, however, has been there when the team needs him the most, and he has responded with a 0.64 ERA and six saves in 15 appearances and 14.0 innings of work. In late March, O'Neil surpassed the school's all-time career saves mark of 15, set by Clint Eury from 2002-05.
It is remarkable that O'Neil eclipsed the record in less than half the time, but both he and Bell point to the team's efforts last season. Of Penn State's 31 wins in 2007, 16 were by two runs or less, emphasizing the need of a reliable closer.
"The year and a half has just been a testament to the team's success," said O'Neil. "Without leading in the eighth and ninth inning, I wouldn't be able to save the game."
Bell finds O'Neil's feat remarkable given the aluminum bat era of college baseball.
"With the aluminum bats, you might not be in save opportunities," Bell said. "You are probably going to have more four or five-run games, but Drew has been in tough situations where he'll come in bases loaded, one out in the eight and get through it for us. It's nice to know you have someone down there you can count on."
Both Bell and Wine know they might have just a few more months where they will be able to look down to their bullpen and find O'Neil.
Next year most likely, they will find him in the major leagues.
But looking back, they are both lucky to have found him at all.