The Boston Red Sox organization surprised Durin O’Linger when he arrived at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.
Red Sox officials asked the former Davidson College star, who was bound for pharmacy school before signing as an undrafted free agent last summer, to try throwing a knuckleball.
Initially, it wasn’t what O’Linger wanted to hear – “that’s normally a last resort kind of thing,” he said – but he understood. He doesn’t throw overpowering pitches at a high velocity, and although throwing a knuckleball meant learning an entirely different way to pitch, it did offer O’Linger another option to climb the ranks. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound right-hander gave the junk pitch a shot.
“I completely bought in because if you figure it out, you get pushed through the system,” said the 24-year-old, whose gutsy performances led Davidson to the NCAA Super Regionals in 2017. “You never know. The sky is the limit if you figure that pitch out, and they don’t let just anybody work on it.”
O’Linger, who is now with the Red Sox’s Single-A Greenville Drive, spent a few months trying to throw the floating pitch that north Mecklenburg County native Hoyt Wilhelm perfected en route to a 21-year major league career and 1985 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction. He met with former Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and current Boston knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright and watched hours upon hours of video of their mechanics.
“Everything has to just be so perfect when the pitch comes out,” said O’Linger, who, coincidentally, owns a Wilhelm jersey. “You have to keep a stiff wrist, and they tell you to throw down a hallway. You open up a little early, you shorten your arm action. It’s a huge feel pitch, but it’s hard to get the feel for something when you don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. That was what I was having a tough time with.”
At times, O’Linger had success with the pitch in spring training games, though he said the resulting pitch was more like a knucklecurve than an actual knuckleball. When opposing batters asked their teammates what he was throwing, O’Linger often heard, “I have no idea.”
“I was getting guys out because it was such a weird pitch and weird spin,” O’Linger said. “They would take it, and I got to the point where I’d get it in the zone. It was super slow, and then all of a sudden I’d throw an 88 miles per hour fastball, and it looked like 110. I was blowing it by guys throwing 88. It was such a big speed difference, and they were already a little rattled because they weren’t sure what I was throwing. You could tell it was supposed to be a knuckleball, but it wasn’t.”
At one point, O’Linger was asked to rely mostly on the knuckler. With consistent success eluding him, though, he was eventually told to return to his normal arsenal of fastball, change-up and slider.
“I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how to kill the spin (on the knuckleball),” he said.
Aside from trying to throw the knuckler, O’Linger has had a hectic second pro season. He left extended spring training to join the Single-A Salem (Va.) Red Sox on May 8, then joined Greenville May 11 to fill in for an injured reliever and pitched in one game before returning to Salem a week later to make three more appearances. He was riding the Salem team bus from Winston-Salem to Myrtle Beach in early June when he was told he would be joining the Double-A Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs for a possible spot start the next day. He arrived at the team hotel in Myrtle Beach at about 3:30 a.m. and caught a ride to the airport a little after 5 a.m. He flew through Charlotte on his way to Maine.
“I didn’t find out I was starting that game until I saw it on Twitter, after I landed,” O’Linger said. “I was running on about an hour-and-a-half of sleep and got taken straight to the field.”
O’Linger was assigned to Greenville June 10 and has settled in with the Drive of the South Atlantic League. In back-to-back starts against Rome and Charleston, O’Linger threw 12 innings and allowed one earned run. He has a 2.78 earned-run average in 22.2 innings.