Scribbled on a whiteboard in the Davidson baseball clubhouse, there’s a list of Durin O’Linger’s bold claims.
It started as a part of the Wildcats’ kangaroo court, an informal and light-hearted way to “punish” players for minor transgressions: an error in the outfield, an embarrassment in the dugout, etc. But as O’Linger’s claims became wilder, the punitive measures seemed petty. These bold claims didn’t deserve fines; they deserved attention.
Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton is a bad athlete. Kansas City Royals’ first baseman Eric Hosmer is serviceable, at best. Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts couldn’t beat O’Linger in a footrace, even as O’Linger calls himself the slowest guy on Davidson’s roster.
“I don’t even believe 95 percent of the things I say,” O’Linger says. “But you have to stick with it. You have to be a man of conviction.”
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He’s the consummate devil’s advocate, always looking to spark a debate or rile someone up. If the list gets too thin, he’ll toss out another bold claim in passing. Try this one: the Wildcats will make their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, and then they’ll win the regional.
He did believe that one. And he was determined to prove it right.
In the Atlantic 10 tournament, the redshirt senior led No. 6 seed Davidson with 236 pitches in three appearances – including a 140-pitch outing to start the week – earning co-MVP honors and securing the Wildcats’ first conference title in their 155-year history. In the Chapel Hill Regional, he used 94 pitches to beat host North Carolina on Friday and tossed another 34 pitches on Sunday, punctuated with a perfect eighth inning and a gliding putout in the ninth for the final out.
Five appearances, 364 pitches – and three years removed from Tommy John surgery.
O’Linger doesn’t often mention the last part; it doesn’t cross his mind anymore. The winningest player in Davidson history has plans beyond baseball, and he’ll pitch until his arms falls off, for all he cares. But for a moment, before his workhorse innings or outlandish claims, the man of conviction wasn’t sure he’d ever pitch again.
ALWAYS A TALKER
O’Linger kicked off one of the greatest weekends of his life with his most public assertion.
“Everyone knows we’re gonna go win the regional …” he told the Observer, one day before the NCAA tournament field was announced. “I feel bad for whatever No. 1 seed has to play us.”
That No. 1 seed turned out to be North Carolina, with 47 wins and a stable of future MLB Draft picks. The Wildcats had taken UNC to 10 innings in early May, but a midweek tilt is no regional. And Davidson had never seen the latter.
The Tar Heels had a true ace in J.B. Bukauskas, a likely first-round draft pick whenever he declares. At 6-foot with a high-90s fastball and a filthy slider, Bukauskas has earned nearly every hyperbole thrown his way. Before facing Davidson, he was 9-0 with a 2.02 ERA and 111 strikeouts.
His competition? A 5-foot-10 workhorse with a below-90s fastball and a reconstructed right arm.
O’Linger is a realist; some even call him a pessimist. He graduated magna cum laude with a biology degree from Davidson; he’s smart enough to know when he’s beat. But O’Linger is bold, and he won’t back down.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m facing Roger Clemens in his prime,” O’Linger said. “I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna act like I’m better than him.”
Does he believe it? It doesn’t matter. He’ll prove you wrong.
He didn’t even pitch until his junior year at Middleton High School, before transferring to Tampa Preparatory School for more academic opportunities. Once there, pitching coach Nick Rodriguez saw a fiery competitor with long arms and a poor build.
Rodriguez told the young right-hander that if he competed as hard in the weight room as he did on the field and in the classroom, he would have a shot. Soon, O’Linger was calling his coach to set up early-morning running sessions and bombarding his phone with pleas for coaching advice. By season’s end, O’Linger had guided an above-average roster to the Class 3A semifinals.
“It didn’t matter who we threw him against,” Rodriguez said. “He was better than they were.”
See, everything is a competition for O’Linger. From allowing a hit in the first inning to getting outscored on an exam, it’s personal. He’s got an eclectic taste of music – Lil’ Wayne is an idol, he says – but dare challenge him when he’s the DJ at a party and you’ll have a debate on your hands.
O’Linger has always been a talker – testing the patience of his K-12 teachers – and he doesn’t take no for an answer. Davidson’s assistant coaches joke that they’re glad they don’t have to take the ball from him when it’s time for the hook.
“I never want to have that conversation,” O’Linger said.
The only time O’Linger remembers going out willingly was in the final inning of the A10 tournament against Virginia Commonwealth, after he walked three Rams and allowed two hits and an earned run. But head coach Dick Cooke still gave him a chance to make his case. That’s how it works with O’Linger – always a debate, always a discussion. Appeal to his senses to coax the ball away.
After 14 1/3 innings in St. Louis, O’Linger outdueled Bukauskas the following Friday in a high-scoring affair. Then, the assistants talked Cooke into throwing out the ace to close Sunday’s game. The pitcher promptly threw two scoreless innings and made the clinching play at first – he was a first baseman in high school – to claim the regional.
“It’s crazy what adrenaline will do for you,” O’Linger said.
His college teammates admirably call him a bulldog. Rodriguez affectionately calls him an a--. Will Robertson – the only All-America on the team – calls him the Wildcats’ leader. Whatever he may be, O’Linger doesn’t go down easy.
“We’ve learned to never doubt Durin O’Linger,” Robertson said.
But what if he doubts himself?
THEN, IT POPPED
Clark Beeker could feel the pain.
It didn’t come right away, but he knew something was off after getting rocked in Davidson’s final intramural scrimmage in 2013. He pitched through it anyway, going 6 1/3 innings on opening day for the Wildcats. Two weeks later, he went two more innings. It was all adrenaline now.
But the pain took over, and with it came a decision. His ulnar collateral ligament was partially torn, likely never healing on its own. Donald D’Alessandro – a surgeon with OrthoCarolina, a partner of Davidson – suggested UCL reconstruction, or “Tommy John” surgery, which would take a tendon from his left hamstring to repair his right arm.
For years, “Tommy John” was effectively an epitaph for prospective pitchers. But Beeker didn’t have a choice. He underwent surgery, and his sophomore season was over.
While Beeker rehabbed, O’Linger went through growing pains as a freshman. He had considered Furman and even flirted with applying to Harvard out of high school. But he had a feeling about Davidson, and his intuition doesn’t lie. In his first year, his Health Care Ethics class had convinced him to pursue pharmacy, a choice he never doubted. Academically, he was at home.
Before committing, Cooke had watched O’Linger throw no more than 25 pitches in a bullpen session. Weeks later, he promised the pitcher a spot on the team.
“I didn’t know if Durin was gonna hit the bench or if he was gonna pitch in a Super Regional,” Cooke said.
The lifelong Tampa, Fla., native fulfilled his goal of playing collegiate baseball, but it started with a 7.23 ERA through his first 18 2/3 innings. When Beeker returned in 2014, it was O’Linger who often earned clean-up duty for his teammate’s scripted starts.
It was all adrenaline from the bullpen for O’Linger, who picked up a 2.41 ERA through 22 appearances as a sophomore. But it was his last outing that proved the toughest.
Fast forward to May, in the first game of the 2014 A10 tournament against The Citadel. Davidson was in the midst of its winningest season in school history, and O’Linger wanted to send the seniors to their first NCAA tournament appearance. He entered in the eighth inning but ran into trouble with three quick hits.
Then, it popped.
He wasn’t done. Like Beeker, he fought through it, enduring six weeks of rehab before he started throwing again. But O’Linger couldn’t escape it. His sophomore season was over.
He wondered if his career was, too. Surgery took time and it took money – neither of which O’Linger could afford to waste. But Beeker had just come back from the same surgery; why couldn’t he? So two weeks before classes started, he flew to see D’Alessandro.
It was as he feared: a fully torn UCL and that dreaded epitaph.
“You always hear the horror stories with guys that never come back from Tommy John,” O’Linger said.
He didn’t back down. Take the tendon from the left hamstring and put in the right arm. Pain medication every four hours. Bring on the rehab.
Every day after class, it was two hours in the training room with former Davidson trainer Bill Coburn. Every Monday, a visit with D’Alessandro. Then practice. He couldn’t play, not fully, but he still rehabbed with assistant coach Ryan Munger. Throw harder, Munger would yell. Locate better, he’d say. O’Linger was headed in the right direction.
But life came at him fast. For weeks, he couldn’t write. He could hardly shower. He wasn’t prepared for this.
The physical rehabilitation is regimented, with tailored checkpoints for strength and range of motion. But there’s no playbook for the mental recovery. So he turned to Beeker for every foreign pain, every trivial concern.
“I basically tried to mirror what he did,” O’Linger said.
Beeker said their friendship grew close that summer, as he told O’Linger everything he wished he had known after surgery. Use plastic bags to keep your arm dry in the shower. Don’t pick up groceries with just one hand. Let gravity pull your arm off the edge of a table when your elbow feels stiff.
O’Linger didn’t have any bold proclamations; for once, he had doubts. But Beeker was there.
“Hey, everything’s gonna be okay,” Beeker told his teammate. “You’re gonna get through this.”
Eventually, it clicked. O’Linger had seen too many players fear injury only to bring it upon themselves. So, ever the contrarian, he expected to get hurt. What did he have to lose?
“I went in coming back from surgery with no inhibitions. ... If my arm pops again, it pops,” O’Linger said.
It never did. After redshirting his junior season, he returned in 2016 as the Saturday starter for Davidson. He threw 85 innings in 14 games with a 3.39 ERA. Most importantly, he made it through the end of the season.
Then, in his senior season, he’s won nine games in 19 appearances with a 2.89 ERA. After a 138-pitch outing against Saint Louis this season, Cooke jokingly texted Beeker that O’Linger wasn’t the same workhorse as Beeker, now playing in the minor leagues. But after the A10 tournament, Beeker disagreed.
“He’s ten times the horse I am,” Beeker said.
‘A TOUGH TIME WITH FILTERING’
If there’s anything Durin doesn’t want you to know, it’s his penchant for the bold claims.
“I have a tough time with filtering what I’m saying before I think,” he says, smirking.
Do you believe him? You shouldn’t. He’s too smart for that. He’s a man of the people, a self-proclaimed “social butterfly.” He’s got political views — strong ones, at that — but he won’t make them known. He won’t pick a favorite teammate; there’s only one winner in that choice and 33 losers. As brash as he can be about the things that don’t matter, he’s guarded about the things that do.
O’Linger cares too much about the people he meets to alienate them with the things he doesn’t believe. He cares about bringing his teammates the opportunities he nearly didn’t have. He cares about getting accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and earning distinction with the degree he never took for granted. He cares about getting through pharmacy school at the University of Florida, where he hopes he can have the same impact on recovering patients and their families as the pharmacist he shadowed five years ago in his Health Care Ethics class.
Sure, he’s bold. But he’s also brilliant. O’Linger isn’t the tallest or the quickest on his feet, but Robertson says he’s the smartest person in Division 1 baseball. And he’s not about to take his gifts for granted.
“He’s the type of person who makes this story of this Davidson baseball team so special,” Beeker said.
But that’s not what brings camera crews to the Wildcats’ practices. It’s the 364 pitches in five games. It’s the quirky persona, with the glove on his head and the beard he hasn’t shaved since before the season started. And, of course, it’s the bold claims.
So don’t be surprised if O’Linger claims that Davidson is beating Texas A&M in this weekend’s super regionals, heading to Omaha and winning the College World Series. If he believes it, shouldn’t you?
C Jackson Cowart: @CJacksonCowart
DAVIDSON AT TEXAS A&M
Davidson plays Texas A&M in a best-of-3 super regional starting Friday at 3 p.m. (ESPN2) and continuing at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2). The first team to win two games in the series will secure a berth in the eight-team College World Series in Omaha later this month.