NSU Baseball: Oller finds his comfort, belonging in Oakland

ARLINGTON, Texas – Ten starts and 15 appearances into his major league career, Adam Oller stood in the visiting locker room at Globe Life Field this past Wednesday and no longer wondered if he belonged.

After a tough start to his rookie season with the Oakland Athletics threatened to scuttle a Hollywood ending of a wicked, twisted road through the minor leagues that took the former Northwestern State All-American to The Show, Oller delivered the best performance of his nascent big-league journey.

The first Demon pitcher in the major leagues since Brian Lawrence’s career ended in 2007, Oller picked up his second victory with six innings of one-run ball in a 7-2 Oakland win against Texas.

“I told him after we took him out, it was probably the best outing he’s had in terms of execution of pitches,” first-year Oakland manager Mark Kotsay said. “He got deep in the game with only 76 pitches. The last time, it was four-and-a-third innings in 72 or so. That’s the growth we were looking for. That’s a good sign. It was a good outing, one we needed.”

Oller needed it, too, albeit not as much as he may have during the first half of the season. After breaking camp with a major league team for the first time, Oller made three starts for Oakland in April before being sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas. He returned to the big leagues for a one-start cameo in a May 14 doubleheader against the Los Angeles Angels before riding the shuttle back to Triple-A.

Oller’s second recall found him working out of the bullpen, fashioning a 3.24 ERA in 8 1-3 innings across five appearances in June. It was during that stretch where Oller’s self-confidence turned around.

“If I had to pick a certain point, it was when we were in New York and I punched out (Aaron) Judge,” said Oller, who is slated to start Monday night against Miami. “I thought, ‘If I can strike out the best home run hitter in the league, I deserve to be here.’ That’s something I struggled with for a long time. Am I good enough to be here? Over time, getting certain guys out builds your confidence. I feel like if I’m good enough to get these guys out, I’m good enough to get anybody out.”

In addition to striking out Judge, Oller got former American League Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson to fly out to end that inning in New York. Despite his success as a reliever, Oller had different plans for himself.

“At the end of the day, that wasn’t the role I wanted for myself,” he said. “I wanted to be a starter. When they sent me down after my time as a reliever, they wanted me to focus on fastball command and usage. Early in the season, I didn’t have the command of my fastball and relied heavily on my cutter. Now, it’s up to where I do have a good fastball. I can use it more often than I do.”

In his first start after the All-Star break, Oller picked up his first career win and the first MLB victory by a Demon pitcher in 5,471 days.

The time between Oller’s first and second big-league wins was much shorter, and it came thanks to some sage advice from one of his teammates.

“Sheldon Neuse told me before I went back up this last time – he said, ‘Every time you go back up is a clean slate,’” Oller said. “I took that to heart. Obviously, the first half wasn’t what I wanted, but it doesn’t have to determine what the second half will be. Every outing I’ve had since then, I haven’t worried about what my numbers are. I want to progress and get to the point where next year, I can be the person I need to be and should be. I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”

Oller’s numbers are trending that way as well. Holding Texas to one run in six innings gave Oller his first quality start in the majors while lowering his August ERA to 4.02.

It also reinforced the roundabout way Oller took to reach the major leagues.

A 20th-round draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2016, Oller was released by the Pirates and pitched for the independent Windy City Thunderbolts before signing as a minor-league free agent with San Francisco. Oller was selected in the minor-league portion of the Rule V draft by the New York Mets and enjoyed a breakout 2021 season that saw him earn the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors.

Those long seasons – along with Oller’s well-documented offseason jobs – helped the right-hander deal with his tough start to the season.

“I drew back on that early in the season,” he said. “I thought I can sit here and sulk about how, ‘Oh I got my opportunity and I’m squandering it,’ or I can think about all I went through – getting released, having to get back into baseball, not being a top prospect – and realize I didn’t go through those things and those years in the minor leagues to get to where I am and sulk about it.

“I didn’t go through those to get to where I am now. Whatever I had to do to get to this point, it is what it is. Now, it’s about the next step and moving forward.”

Another impetus for Oller’s turnaround – as well as a driving force behind his return to baseball — was sitting in Section 106 wearing a No. 36 Oakland jersey with “Oller” above the numbers.

Oller’s mother, Sharon, was in attendance to watch the best performance of her son’s major league career.

“It’s awesome,” Adam Oller said. “I haven’t been able to see my mom – or my parents in general – much this season with where they live (Knoxville, Tennessee) and where we play. Any chance I get to see them, it’s special. I know for a fact there’s not a bigger fan out there than her, and I know it’s killing my dad that he’s not here.

“Hopefully, there will be plenty more opportunities for them to go.”

Photo: Oakland Athletics