SARASOTA, FLA. — Oliver Drake looked quite comfortable in the clubhouse of the Orioles' Ed Smith Stadium spring training complex. Whether standing at his locker talking to a reporter or playing pingpong against top prospect Dylan Bundy, the former Navy pitcher seemed right at home.
For a player making his second appearance at major league camp, half the battle is believing you belong, and Drake certainly does not lack confidence. Asked whether he felt going north with the Orioles for Opening Day was a realistic goal, the relief pitcher didn't hesitate.
"That's the plan. I came into camp with the idea of making the team," Drake said. "Whether or not I get that opportunity is for others to decide. I just want to go out and pitch the best I possibly can and open some eyes."
Drake is definitely a long shot to be part of a crowded Orioles bullpen that figures to have up to seven holdovers from last year's roster. That being said, the Massachusetts native is one of the more interesting Orioles stories this spring — a 28-year-old who has never pitched a full season above Double-A Bowie and was converted from a starter to a reliever after undergoing shoulder surgery in August 2012.
Drake was a minor league free agent this past offseason and drew the interest of several teams. The Orioles tendered him a major league contract, and Drake did not need to think long before accepting.
"I was thrilled when the Orioles offered a spot on the 40-man [roster]. I've been very happy with the Orioles and was excited about coming back to the organization that drafted me and has believed in me," Drake said. "It also helps that I'm familiar with the coaching staff and medical staff."
Drake was on the 40-man roster once before, but his career took a wrong turn several months after that designation was made in November 2011. He began the 2012 season on the disabled list and wound up pitching just 18 innings in three starts that year before undergoing surgery in August. Doctors performed what is known as an interval closure and also cleaned up his labrum.
Drake began the 2013 season in extended spring training before joining Bowie in June with Orioles officials closely monitoring his workload and right shoulder. Working exclusively out of the bullpen, the 6-foot-4, 215 pound right-hander pitched just 31 innings in 19 appearances and put up solid numbers — a 3-0 record, with a 1.74 ERA and 38 strikeouts.
"I thought the Orioles had a great plan for me in 2013. I had a set number of innings I could pitch, and the staff at Bowie made sure I got plenty of rest," Drake said. "The goal was to ease back into things and finish the year healthy."
Drake was sent back to Bowie in 2014 and this time there was no pitch count or innings limitations. He gives a lot of credit to minor league medical coordinator Dave Walker for helping with the rehabilitation and comeback process.
"I did a lot of work with Dave Walker, and he was great. It was a real grind and some days felt better than others, but I was able to get back to full strength," Drake said. "I felt really good going into 2014."
Bowie manager Gary Kendall put Drake into the closer's role, and the results were a real revelation that led to a career rebirth. Drake dominated the much younger hitters in leading the Eastern League with 31 saves in 35 chances. He allowed just 41 hits in 522/3 innings while recording 71 strikeouts and allowing just 17 walks.
Drake's 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings was easily a career-best. He held opposing hitters to a .214 batting average in 210 plate appearances. He regained velocity on the fastball, which was consistently clocked between 90 mph and 94 mph. He uses a split-fingered fastball as an off-speed pitch and also throws a slider.
"I'm told [Drake] was as good a relief pitcher as there was in that league," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
On the surface, it would seem the Orioles offered Drake a major league deal and berth on the 40-man roster to avoid losing him to another organization. Showalter disputed that notion during one of his daily news conferences last week.
"I don't care what other teams think of a player. To me it comes down to this: Do you like him, do you want to keep him? If so, put him on the roster," Showalter said. "He's got good stuff and showed last year that he's in good shape physically."
Showalter said he is not concerned that Drake turned 28 in mid-January and always has seemed intrigued by his service academy background.
"We want to be real sure we don't miss on a Naval Academy guy," he said.
Barring a spectacular spring, the eighth-year professional likely will begin the season at Triple-A Norfolk with the possibility of being called up to the major leagues because of an injury or need.
Drake was the Orioles' 43rd-round selection in the 2008 draft after two standout seasons at Navy. He was scouted and signed by Dean Albany, who coached Drake with the Maryland Orioles and knew he was eligible for the draft after just two years of college because he turned 21 in January 2008.
Halfway toward a valuable Naval Academy degree, Drake said he agonized over the decision to stay in school or sign a professional contract.
"It was really tough. I went back and forth a bunch of times. Ultimately, I decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn't pass up. I could always go back to college," Drake said.
Navy coach Paul Kostacopoulos recalled that Drake received a $100,000 signing bonus along with a college fund. That is the type of money commanded by much higher draft choices and showed the pitcher how highly the Orioles regarded him.
"What I respect about Oliver is that he didn't just put one toe in the water; he went hard after this and never backed off from believing he could make it work," said Kostacopoulos, who stays in touch with Drake. "The odds of making the major leagues are incredibly long, but Oliver is close enough to taste it. I think he's handled the ups and downs of pro ball with great mental toughness and has always competed very hard."