RALEIGH — If everything had gone according to plan, Joe O’Donnell might be pitching a few innings in a Major League spring training camp this spring. Instead, he’s back at NC State starting his fifth season as a member of the Wolfpack baseball team.
His timetable was thrown off by a shoulder injury that cut short his draft-eligible junior year, suffered only a week after the best performance of his college career.
Now healthy again and coming off a bounce-back 2017 season in which he found a new role, the hard-throwing right-hander’s stock is once again on the rise as one of the best bullpen closers in the ACC.
“The versatility he showed and the big moments he pitched in, he was without question our most valuable pitcher last year,” State pitching coach Scott Foxall said. “It’s a huge boost to this team that he’s back.
“I think having a guy at the back end of the bullpen is the most important thing in college baseball, and we’ve got a good one.”
It was only last year, when he went 4-0 with a team-leading seven saves in 25 relief appearances, that O’Donnell assumed the closer’s role that helped land him on this year’s preseason watch list for college baseball’s Stopper of the Year award.
He spent the first three seasons with the Wolfpack bouncing around between several different jobs both out of the bullpen and in the starting rotation.
The Wilmington native finally seemed to have found his niche as his team’s Friday night starter when he took a shutout into the ninth against Notre Dame before settling for a 9-1 complete game victory. But he didn’t make it out of the first inning of his next appearance, at Florida State, and missed the rest of the season with pain in his shoulder.
The good news for O’Donnell is the injury didn’t require surgery. The bad news is he missed out on the draft and would have to prove himself once again.
It’s a process that began slowly as he started to work himself back into game shape and adjust to a few mechanical adjustments in his delivery.
“Once we got into ACC play, once I started competing again, I started feeling like myself again,” he said. “I think I’m pretty much everything I used to be.”
If not better.
O’Donnell did not allow a run while recording six of his seven saves during 12⅓-inning stretch from late April to mid-May. His most significant victory came once the season ended, when he was granted a medical redshirt for his injury-plagued junior year that enabled him to return as a graduate student this spring.
Although he hasn’t been called upon to do much closing yet thanks to a hard-hitting lineup that’s averaging nearly nine runs per game during an 8-1 start, O’Donnell has yet to give up a hit or run while going 3 for 3 on save opportunities.
In the process, he’s well on his way to re-emerging as a prospect on the radar screens of the Major League scouts that frequent State’s games.
Not that he’s in any hurry to get the season over with and finally move on from the Wolfpack.
“You never know. Even if I stay healthy my junior year, maybe I’m still here for my senior year anyway because I really love playing here,” O’Donnell said. “The fans here are great. The atmosphere is great.
“I hope I’m a prospect, but once we get into the season that’s not something I think about. All I think about is trying to win games.”