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Ohka Off to a Good Start

Nationals Right-Hander Is a Perfectionist and It Shows

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page D05

VIERA, Fla., March 14 -- With dark clouds rolling in over the scrub brush and strip malls Monday, the crowd at Space Coast Stadium began to run for cover, bracing for the storm. The wind kicked up, and quarter-sized raindrops began to fall. Tomo Ohka simply stood on the mound, rocked and fired toward home plate. He threw just 29 pitches before the rains came. Twenty were for strikes. The assessment afterward: "That's Ohka," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said.

If, in fact, that is Ohka, then the Washington Nationals have a more-than-solid contributor to the rotation. On Monday, Ohka faced nine Los Angeles Dodgers and retired them all. He was supposed to throw more than 50 and perhaps as many as 65 pitches, but the rain ended his day -- and the game, with the Nationals leading 5-0 after the top of the third.

Pitcher Tomo Ohka is on the comeback trail after suffering a shattered forearm early last season. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Ohka, who hails from Kyoto, Japan, and speaks improving-but-still-halting English, said afterward that while his performance looks flawless on paper, he doesn't believe it's so.

"I threw couple pitches high," he said, "so I don't think my pitching was perfect. I don't think so."

That kind of perfectionist attitude pervades everything the right-hander does. Last season, he suffered a freakish injury when a line drive scorched off the bat of Carlos Beltran, then with Kansas City, and smashed into Ohka's right forearm, shattering the radius bone and leaving an imprint of the Major League Baseball logo behind. Ohka still bears the scar on his arm where surgeons went in to place a plate last June. But the scar is just a reminder of what the injury, and its aftermath, say about Ohka.

Take the immediate moments after the liner. Instead of crumpling to the ground in pain, Ohka tried to track down the ball. He picked it up and tossed it to first -- almost in time to retire Beltran. But what got his teammates' attention even more, catcher Brian Schneider said, is the fact that three months after the injury, Ohka was back on the mound.

"There's no reason why he had to come back," Schneider said. "He wanted to prove to a lot of people that he wants to win."

In 2002, that's what Ohka did -- win. Acquired in a trade-deadline deal with Boston the previous summer, Ohka went 13-8 with a 3.18 ERA in his first full season with the Montreal Expos, the team that became the Nationals this offseason. Though his arsenal is quite complex -- he throws six pitches -- what he does with it is simple.

"He gets the ball," Manager Frank Robinson said, "throws it, and throws strikes."

Since he came to the Washington franchise, Ohka has allowed just a hair more than two walks per nine innings. That approach was apparent Monday, when he fired first-pitch strikes to six of the nine hitters he faced. St. Claire would love it if the rest of the staff -- which he feels tries to nibble at the corners too much -- would learn from Ohka's direct approach.

"I harp on it constantly," St. Claire said. "I'm big on the first-pitch strike. To me, it's the best pitch in baseball. It puts the hitter on the defensive. [You're] the aggressor. And you want early contact. For me, it keeps your pitch counts down, keeps your defense on your toes, [leads to] less walks. All of it."

But because Ohka has such good control -- even with his diverse array, which includes a fastball, curveball, cut fastball, slider, changeup and sinker -- St. Claire wants Ohka to throw fewer strikes. Counterintuitive? Sure. But in 2003, Ohka went 10-12 with a 4.16 ERA largely because he gave up 233 hits in 199 innings.

"He doesn't expand the zone enough," St. Claire said. "When he gets ahead with two strikes, he's coming after you, where I'd like to see him take and maybe expand it a little bit and see if he can get them to chase a bad pitch."

Because of the rain Monday, the stats for the game against the Dodgers don't count. Ohka's first start of the spring came in an intrasquad game, so those won't count either. Last week, in his other appearance, he allowed just a single in three innings. It might not show up on paper, but Ohka has, quietly, been the Nationals' best starter thus far.

"He's throwing the way he's capable of throwing right now," Robinson said. "But let's not get carried away. It's spring training."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company