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Cubs unsung heroes: Ryan O’Malley, August 16, 2006

Now THIS is a great story.

Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Ryan O’Malley was never supposed to have his moment in the sun.

He was an afterthought — the Cubs didn’t draft the lefthander, they signed him as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Memphis in 2002. He toiled away, mainly as a swingman, through the Cubs organization for his first four years, never getting even as much as a spring-training invitation.

In 2006, he had made it to Triple-A Iowa, again mostly an afterthought, starting occasionally, relieving occasionally.

His trip to the big leagues was mostly courtesy of Matt Murton. Here, let me explain.

The 2006 Cubs were having a dismal season. After going 13-10 in April, they went 16-40 (!) in May and June and by the time they hit Houston for a three-game series August 14, they were 49-68, 13 games out of first place. They won the first game of the series, but were three outs away from losing the second game August 15 when Murton stepped to the plate leading off the ninth [VIDEO].

The homer, off Brad Lidge, tied the game. And then no one scored for a very, very, very long time. The Astros left RISP in the 11th, 13th, 14th and 15th innings. The punchless 2006 Cubs never really had many chances to score, but they loaded the bases in the top of the 18th on a double, single and walk and then up stepped Murton again [VIDEO].

Rich Hill retired the Astros 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 18th and the Cubs had an 8-6 win. Great, even in a horrid season, right?

Yes, but... Rich Hill was the scheduled starter for the next day’s game. Which was an afternoon getaway-day start, 1:05 p.m. The 18-inning game ended at 12:40 a.m., less than 12 hours before the scheduled first pitch for the day game. The Cubs had not only used Hill, but also nine other pitchers in the extra-inning affair. (10 pitchers used in an extra-inning game might not seem like a lot now, but in 2006... that was pretty much the whole staff.)

They needed a starting pitcher, pronto.

By the luck of the schedule, the Iowa Cubs were playing in Round Rock, Texas that week. Round Rock, outside Austin, isn’t too far from Houston, but... it’s pushing toward 1 a.m. How on Earth are the Cubs going to get someone from Round Rock to Houston in time to start this game? And who would it be?

It wound up being Ryan O’Malley — and here’s how he got to Houston:

“I was having a really nice year at Triple-A, but Wade Miller was coming down to rehab and they were giving him my start,” O’Malley said. “… I wasn’t going to pitch that day, so they decided it was Ryan O’Malley going to big leagues. The stars lined up in an unbelievable way.”

The 26-year-old O’Malley hopped in a limo that morning and attempted to catch a few minutes of sleep in the back seat on the ride from Round Rock to Houston. Having been totally blindsided by the news, he wasn’t even aware who he’d face on the mound later that day. O’Malley had to ask his limo driver. The answer: Andy Pettitte.

One heck of a way to make a major-league debut, right?

As you can imagine, both Cubs and Astros players were pretty wiped out from playing till the wee hours of the morning. O’Malley allowed some Houston baserunners in the early innings, but managed to work out of trouble every time. Here’s his first big-league strikeout, a K of Pettitte, ending the fourth inning [VIDEO].

Granted, that’s a K of a pitcher, and not a very good-hitting pitcher at that (Pettitte had a .136 lifetime BA with 66 strikeouts in 196 at-bats). But O’Malley managed to scatter five hits and six walks and allow no runs in eight innings. The Cubs scored the only run of the game on a home run by Michael Barrett in the sixth inning and won 1-0, sweeping the series. The game ran a swift 2:18 and was one of the best things about that awful 96-loss season.

Six days later at Wrigley Field, O’Malley took the mound against the Phillies to a standing ovation. Start No. 2 wasn’t as good as his day in Houston — O’Malley allowed three runs in 4⅔ innings and was removed, to another ovation, even though the Cubs were losing the game.

Something else happened during that fifth inning, though:

But in the fifth, he felt a twinge in his left elbow.

“I didn’t feel anything until there was a ball that had a scuff and I lobbed it back to (catcher Henry Blanco),” O’Malley said. “At that point I was like, ‘Oh my God, what was that in my elbow? I’ve never felt that before.’ But no way am I saying anything, no way am I coming out of this game. This is my Wrigley Field debut.”

The next pitch O’Malley threw would be his last in the majors. Blanco, the veteran catcher, immediately knew something was wrong, and at that point O’Malley had no say in the matter. He was pulled from the game and would end up being yet another in a long line of Cubs pitchers in 2006 to be placed on the disabled list.

And so O’Malley never pitched in the big leagues again. He did get an invitation to spring training 2007 — the photo at the top of this post is from a game in March 2007 in Mesa — but after he posted a 6.94 ERA in 29 appearances at Iowa in 2007, he was let go. The White Sox signed him and he put up similarly bad numbers in Double-A for them in 2008 (5.32 ERA in 20 games) and that was it for his baseball career.

The article linked above says O’Malley and his family now live in the Phoenix area, and he has no regrets about baseball:

Although he misses the minutiae of life as a baseball player, O’Malley is content with the life he has built post-career. He’s at peace with how his career ended and is able to comfortably look back on everything that happened during his brief MLB experience.

Even if he didn’t get another chance in the big leagues, nobody will ever be able to take away the day he outdueled Andy Pettitte in Houston.

“I couldn’t be happier,” O’Malley said.

Good for him. It’s a great Cubs and baseball story and Ryan O’Malley should never be forgotten.