O’Malley was called up from Triple-A Iowa, who was conveniently playing a road series against Houston’s Triple-A affiliate in nearby Round Rock, Texas, at the time. The Cubs had battled with the Astros through 18 innings on the eve of O’Malley’s big league debut on Aug. 16, and in doing so had gone through their entire pitching staff – already in shambles due to injuries.
While O’Malley’s debut was a memorable one, it did not come under the best of circumstances for a Cubs team mired in last place in the NL Central.
Nevertheless, it would not take long for O’Malley’s popularity to soar – at least in his hometown, resulting in numerous phone calls and text messages from friends and distant relatives, plus multiple write-up’s, recaps and feature stories in local newspapers around the Illinois state capital.
The publicity surrounding O’Malley in and around Springfield has only grown in recent months as the Cubs pitcher has been asked to speak at local area schools and has also been booked for autograph sessions.
It seems everyone he comes in contact with has their own favorite Ryan O’Malley story, and with good reasons: memorable moments have been aplenty for the left-hander in the past year.
O’Malley went from fulfilling one lifelong dream (his big league debut) to another (his Wrigley Field debut) last August, the latter coming against the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 22. For O’Malley, it was his last start before falling victim to a strained left elbow.
The injury was never thought to be serious, but it would force an early end to O’Malley’s season. The toughest part about being injured, he said, was not so much the physical aspect, but the mental one.
“At first it was hard to overcome that (mental) feeling when you haven’t thrown in three months,” O’Malley said. “Those first two weeks when I resumed throwing, it was tough to let myself go. I was kind of babying it and not finishing my throws. I was waiting for everything to feel full again and it wasn’t. Even now, the mental part is still getting better each time out.”
At the time the injury occurred, O’Malley had already thrown more innings – most of them at Triple-A – than at any point previously in his career. Though he feels fine now, it was the first time in his career that the Cubs pitcher had ever fallen prey to the injury bug.
“I’d never experienced the kind of adrenaline pumping through my body as I did in Houston and at Wrigley,” O’Malley said. “My elbow was telling me to hold on. We took all the precautions and shut my pitching down. We just wanted to get it strong again, but there was no surgery; no tears or anything. It was just a strain and some inflammation in my elbow.”
A lot has changed since O’Malley’s climb to local stardom late last season. The Cubs have spent $300 million this offseason with a good chunk of it going toward free agents starters Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.
O’Malley clearly won’t be a favorite to land a definitive role with the team this spring, but he was all the same invited to Big League Spring Training camp earlier this winter.
What’s next for O’Malley? He isn’t sure.
“I don’t have a lot of control as to what plays out,” he acknowledged. “My goals, as they have been every year even in minor league spring training, is to have the mindset to be in the big leagues. This year, more than any other year, my goal is to definitely make the team out of Spring Training.”
With Carlos Zambrano, Rich Hill, Lilly and Marquis all likely locked into the Cubs’ rotation, and dare we say a healthy Mark Prior and Wade Miller on the horizon, O’Malley’s goal will be no small task.
But a small portion of O’Malley’s psyche must surely welcome the challenge.
He has forever been branded an underdog, all starting in 2002 when the University of Memphis alumnus went unselected in that year’s draft despite being told by some scouts that he was projected as a top 15-round pick.
O’Malley thought his shot at pitching in the pros might be over before it ever even began. Luckily for him, the Cubs soon called and offered O’Malley a minor league contract. He has since had to battle for a spot on a Cubs roster each year.
This year figures to be no different for O’Malley, who holds a career 28-23 record in the minor leagues with a 3.85 ERA.
“Whatever happens, I’ll accept the outcome,” O’Malley said. “I’m going to be prepared and give it everything I possibly can. Then I’ll look in the mirror every day knowing I did just that. Hopefully I’ll get another opportunity and when that opportunity comes, I’ll be ready for it.”
As for the notion that he’s become somewhat of a rock star in his hometown, it all seems lost on O’Malley.
“In my eyes, I’m still the same kid who went to grade school and junior college here and was just another local athlete,” said O’Malley, who turns 27 in April. “A lot of people are treating me like a celebrity and I’ve been trying to keep a level head about it. I’m the same kid I always was so I just enjoy the moment.”