O'Neal heads to Braves' spring training in a few weeks
By DANA BARKER
For Columbus native and former Pacelli, CVCC, and Auburn pitching ace Michael O'Neal, his dream is about come true.
O'Neal will join his beloved Major League Baseball team growing up, the Atlanta Braves, for spring training as he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the team late last year. The major leaguers will report to spring training in the middle of February. O'Neal will head to camp sometime in March.
After leading Pacelli to a state championship in 2008, O'Neal walked on at CVCC. He made good on his opportunity, pitching a school record 212.1 innings and finishing fourth in career strikeouts with 189 in a span of 41 games as he finished with a combined 15-9 record and 3.05 earned run average.
Pirates coach Adam Thomas said O'Neal became like a son to him.
"We have a special bond," said Thomas. "Three things about him stand out to me: his work ethic, his perseverance, and his faith."
O'Neal came to CVCC at 260 pounds, Thomas said. The two worked out daily in the offseason prior to his freshman year at CrossFit Inception to get him down to his playing weight of 220.
"He was a baseball player in a football player's body," said Thomas. "But I instilled in him that there's always an opportunity until God shuts the door."
"He gave me my start," O'Neal said of Thomas. "He opened the door for me to get into college baseball. He's my biggest fan and biggest motivator."
After succeeding at CVCC, O'Neal moved on to play for Auburn in 2013 and 2014. He was the Tigers' most consistent starter in his ju
nior year, leading the team with an 8-4 record and 2.73 ERA. His eight wins were sixth-most in the Southeastern Conference.
"It was a dream come true at the time," said O'Neal. "I was an Auburn fan growing up, and we would go to Auburn games, both football and baseball. That's the school I always wanted to go to."
After graduating from Auburn and playing two seasons in the Frontier League -- an independent minor league -- a family friend from New York gave O'Neal a call.
The guy was Anthony Yacco, a former major league pitcher and a pitching instructor at the 4D Sports Performance Center in Westchester, N.Y.
"We worked on some things, we worked on mechanics, and we saw my velocity just shoot up," O'Neal said. "The ball started coming out completely different than it did at Auburn. They started making some calls (to MLB scouts) and the Blue Jays came to watch me. Their scout loved me."
It was then when a fortuitous turn of events led him to his favorite childhood major league team.
"The Blue Jays' scout had also previously worked for a higher-up with the Braves," said O'Neal. "He was pushing me to the Blue Jays, but he also called the Braves and sent them some video of me because he knew where I was from. The Braves called and wanted me to pitch for them the next week. I pitched for them, and the next day, I got a call from Jonathan Schuerholz, the director of the Braves' farm system, saying they wanted to sign me. They said they were trying to acquire good young arms, and I have the potential to move up."
O'Neal was signed to a minor league contract with Atlanta and expects to latch on this season to either the Braves' low-A affiliate in Danville, Va., or their high-A affiliate in Rome, Ga.
"(The Braves) said they'll probably put me in extended spring training for a couple of weeks in April and possibly move me up to Rome," O'Neal said. "They originally said I'd be a reliever, but I've had some conversations with them where they've thought about starting me depending on how I look when I get there. Their philosophy is that if I throw over 93, 95 (mph), they'll (put me as a reliever); if it's less than that, they'll start me. If I come in as a reliever, I'll have a chance to be in high-A by the end of the year, and I'll be happy with that."
The progression for a Columbus native from CVCC to Auburn to MLB is strikingly similar to that of another star pitcher, Tim Hudson. O'Neal embraces those parallels.
"Coach Thomas says we even have the same two-seam fastball," said O'Neal. "I have that little sink on my fastball just like (Hudson) and I don't overpower guys; I throw 90, 92, touching 94 like he does, too, (but) I don't have the splitter he does."
O'Neal also has a message for local Braves fans who may be on the ledge after the bevy of transactions over the past year.
"Watch out. (Atlanta has) a really good starting rotation and they have crazy arms in the AA and AAA organizations. The future is very bright," he said.