Drake overcomes obstacles to earn MiLBY

Orioles reliever advanced to big leagues after delivering best season

Oliver Drake notched 23 saves after allowing just four runs on 23 hits in 42 appearances with Norfolk. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

By Kelsie Heneghan / MiLB.com | October 28, 2015 10:00 AM

After walking onto the field of Fenway Park for the first time, Oliver Drake couldn't help but look up.

"It was just weird because I was so used to looking down on it from the stands," the Massachusetts native said. "So to be on the field level was a really cool moment."

In his second stint with Baltimore, Drake made sure to get to the stadium early that June day. He wandered through all the parts that were previously off limits as a fan and took pictures of "all the little things that make Fenway so special." He was a Major Leaguer now, so he made his way inside the Green Monster and was awed by the history.

But the journey to Yawkey Way was more than just the 47-mile drive down the Mass Pike from Drake's hometown of Worcester.

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It appeared 2012 was going to be Drake's breakout season. The Orioles had added him to the 40-man roster in the offseason and he was off to a strong start, posting a 1.50 ERA with 15 strikeouts in his first three starts with Double-A Bowie.

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Coming off his first full season, Giants prospect Jake Smith improved in just about every way. The right-hander posted a 2.35 ERA while striking out a career-high 118 and cutting his walk total to 21 in 84 1/3 innings. Smith held California League hitters to a .172 average and converted 16 of 19 save opportunities. Although he missed the final week of the regular season with an injury, Smith returned to the mound in time to lead the Giants to the league Finals. The 25-year-old closes out his fourth campaign as the fans' choice for Reliever of the Year. Voting results »

"It was an exciting year and I was looking forward to it and I was actually pitching well at the time. Then my shoulder started hurting. I got it checked out and unfortunately needed surgery," the right-hander said. "Surgery is a scary thing; you don't know how you're going to bounce back."

Drake turned to Dave Walker, the Orioles' Minor League medical coordinator, for his rehab. After the surgery in August, the 43rd-round pick in the 2008 Draft began working his way back.

Six days a week for four to five months, Drake and Walker applied corrective exercises to figure out what caused the injury and what Drake could do to avoid reinjury.

"I think the mental part was the hardest, because you go through days where you felt really good and then the next day you felt terrible again," the 6-foot-4 hurler said. "You never knew how you were going to feel each day, so it was tough just going back and forth -- having a really good day, and then the next day, having a bad day. I just tried to stay positive with that and keep working."

Walker noted Drake's good attitude, and eventually the process got easier. Drake's Naval Academy experience was evident to the coordinator in his respectful and intelligent nature and how he never gave up over the course of his rehab. In the winter, Drake began a throwing program and was on track for a midseason return.

"Obviously, I've rehabbed a lot of guys from injuries, but his makeup and his work ethic just made it a pleasure," Walker said. "He just has that mind-set and that makeup and his character that he just knew he was going to be fine. If it was going to be a struggle, he was going to find a way to get back to where he was."

When Drake returned to the mound on June 11, 2013, it was as a reliever with an innings limit. The righty ceased throwing from the windup as he adjusted to life in the bullpen.

"From the first time I got in a game as a reliever, it was cool having the adrenaline rush when your name gets called in the bullpen to get going," he said. "It's a little different trying a new routine or a new way to get ready, because you don't know when you're going to pitch."

Drake began to notice his velocity return as he settled into a new role. He posted a 1.74 ERA with 38 strikeouts over 19 appearances that first year back, and then the following season he became Bowie's closer, saving 31 of 35 opportunities for the Baysox.

"I try not to put any pressure on it, depending on what inning it is. No matter when your name gets called, you have the same job -- you have to get people out," he said. "Every time out there, you just go and try to get three outs. The managers I had just seemed to be putting me out there in the ninth inning. It's fun and exciting to go out there in close games when the game is on the line."

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When Spring Training ended earlier this year, the ninth inning belonged to Drake again, but this time he would be reporting to somewhere other than Bowie for the first time since 2011. Having just re-signed with the Orioles in the offseason, Drake was excited to continue to develop in the organization that drafted him.

From the start, the Triple-A Norfolk staff knew Drake would be its closer. Tides pitching coach Mike Griffin saw the 28-year-old had the right demeanor to close out games, so more and more he would advise manager Ron Johnson to bring in the righty. Before long, Griffin didn't even have to tell Drake to warm. As soon as the Tides had a late lead, the closer would get up.

"You could see Oliver pace up and down the bullpen to stretch and get ready because he knew his role was coming up," the pitching coach said. "The preparedness propelled him to accomplish what he accomplished this year."

After yielding just two runs over his first 16 appearances, Drake received a late-night call that he would be making his first trip to the Majors. Scrambling to arrange flights for his girlfriend, Shannon, who had just arrived in Norfolk, as well as for dad Jay and brother Elliott, the right-hander didn't have time to think about the gravity of the situation.

On May 23, Drake allowed two hits over three scoreless innings at Miami. Still dazed from the chaotic 24 hours, the Navy product relaxed and watched TV with his family and girlfriend at the hotel after the game. Then highlights popped up on the TV.

"That was a surreal moment," he said. "It sank in right there."

Eleven days later, Drake was back in the International League. Disappointed but determined, Drake picked up where he left off, "throwing strikes and getting outs."

Despite two callups and a trip to the disabled list with a mild oblique strain, the 6-foot-4 hurler did not allow a run for 26 straight Minor League innings, holding IL foes to 10 hits from April 27 to August 6.

"That was pretty impressive, those 26 games; let me tell you that right off the bat. I haven't seen that very often." Griffin said. "It's his demeanor and competitiveness that buckled down after he gave up those two runs early in the year. There really wasn't any real secret; it was just that it was his demeanor.

"He has the drive to be better, the drive to compete, and I think those two things took over -- especially during those 26 scoreless -- that propelled him to even better things in the second half of the season for us."

The numbers were impressive, but Griffin admits it wasn't all "easy or cupcake." He remembers one time in particular in which Drake was in a jam with the tying and go-ahead runners on base and his best stuff eluding him. The pitching coach made his way to the mound to talk to his star closer, but Griffin never got a word out.

"'Thanks, Griff -- I got this,'" the coach recalled the pitcher saying to him.

So Griffin returned to the dugout and soon the Tides did too after Drake closed out the win. The righty had the ability to realize and fix his mechanics mid-inning, making his pitching coach's job easier.

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When the Minor League regular season came to a close, Drake had allowed just four runs on 23 hits with 66 strikeouts and 23 saves in 23 opportunities, amounting to an 0.82 ERA. His successful season earned him a share of the Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award in the Orioles system. In 29 years of coaching, Griffin said he has not seen many pitchers put up numbers like his closer did this season.

"He had to come through some obstacles, some detours, so to speak, to get to where he got this year in 2015. So it's a credit to him, it's a credit to his hard work, it's a credit to his demeanor and it's a credit to what he accomplished this year," the coach said. "To do what he did was quite astounding, quite amazing."

Drake returned to the Majors twice more, but just like his former classmates who went on to join the Navy, he never complained or whined to his superiors.

"I've come across some players in my career where they get sent down and they're disappointed and you gotta kick them in the rear end a little bit," Griffin said. "But not once did I have to do that with Oliver. Not once."

Drake's final time in the Minors was as the Tides were making a run at the Governors' Cup. He was frustrated after being sent down again, but he let the excitement of the playoffs take over as he tossed three one-hit innings over three appearances. When Norfolk was eliminated in the semifinals, the right-hander got one more call to Baltimore.

On Sept. 26, Drake returned to Fenway Park, but this time he got to pitch. He allowed two unearned runs on a hit in an inning, but he wasn't as nervous as he was that first time he stepped onto the field. The "awe effect" of the storied stage had worn off a little and he was just playing the game he loves.

"It's been a crazy [journey] for me; it's been a long one for me -- crazy when I sit back and think about it. Getting drafted in 2008, then going through the whole Minor League contract and then this year finally making it to the Major Leagues," he said. "But it's been worth it. This is what I've always wanted to do, so I'm really enjoying it right now."

Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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