Nats' Ohka Gets Surprise Call, Answers With 6 Shutout Innings

Nationals mascot Screech comes out on the field before the first rain delay. Game was called in the eighth.
Nationals mascot Screech comes out on the field before the first rain delay. Game was called in the eighth. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

If it wasn't the best performance of Tomo Ohka's career, it was certainly the most astonishing.

On a night when he never expected to start, when hard rain made it difficult to grip the ball and when Manager Frank Robinson labeled him the Nationals' biggest April disappointment, Ohka revitalized his season.

In a circumstance-defying six innings, Ohka allowed no runs and only two hits to propel the Nationals to a 5-3 victory over the New York Mets in front of 40,913 at RFK Stadium in a game ended by rain in the middle of the eighth inning after a 43-minute delay. The win gave the Nationals a 13-11 record in the first month of the season, eight wins better than the Montreal Expos' 5-19 record at the same time last year.

Nobody felt better about that accomplishment last night than Ohka, who pitched because scheduled starter Zach Day was scratched with an ear infection three hours before the game. The win improved Ohka's record to 2-3 with a 4.50 earned run average, but he won back two things far more important: his rhythm and his manager's confidence.

In each of his first four starts of the season, Ohka allowed at least three earned runs. He struggled to throw strikes. He lost as much as 5 mph on his fastball. He lasted only three innings in his last start, against the Mets on April 23.

His downward spiral bottomed out yesterday afternoon, when Robinson pinpointed Ohka when asked to name his team's biggest disappointment.

"Ohka," Robinson said. "Ohka has disappointed me. I thought he was one of the players I didn't have to have any concerns about. For him to come out now and pitch the way he has pitched, it's a little concerning, a little negative for this team. We need him to step up."

Last night, at least, he did. Asked to pitch three hours before the game, Ohka performed as if he'd planned to start for the last five days. He retired the first six men he faced and struck out a season-high three batters.

His control proved most surprising. Heralded during spring training as the Nationals' most consistent strike thrower, Ohka came into the game with 15 walks -- tied with Livan Hernandez for most on the team.

The only time Ohka misfired last night, though, was when he fielded a ground ball by Doug Mientkiewicz in the fifth inning and threw three feet left of shortstop Cristian Guzman at second base for an error. That mistake led to Ohka's biggest jam of the night -- the bases loaded and just one out. He escaped it by striking out pinch hitter Eric Valent and inducing Jose Reyes to hit an easy ground ball, then walked off the mound ferociously nodding his head.

When Ohka's night ended, perhaps prematurely, with a 30-minute rain delay after the top of the sixth inning, he'd thrown 57 of his 89 pitches for strikes, walking only one batter.

Instead, it was New York starter Victor Zambrano (1-3) who struggled with control -- and the Nationals who benefited from it. In four sporadic innings, Zambrano walked three batters and hit Jose Guillen twice, once on the shoulder and once on the neck. After Zambrano hit Guillen in the first inning, Vinny Castilla walked to the plate and, with a full count, slapped a double down the left field line to score Guillen and Jose Vidro.

Zambrano's other major mistake -- walking Nick Johnson with the bases loaded in the fourth inning -- scored Ryan Church to give Nationals a 3-0 lead.

That was more than enough run support for Ohka. Church's solo home run in the fifth inning and Nick Johnson's solo shot after the rain delay in the sixth provided extra run support for the bullpen, which it would need.

Gary Majewski came into the game, loaded the bases in the eighth inning and gave up a three-run double to Cliff Floyd. Robinson then called for pitcher Hector Carrasco, who warmed up while Robinson argued with the home plate umpire -- presumably about the rain that had puddled in the infield. Three minutes into the conversation, Robinson was ejected. He left the dugout as Carrasco recorded the final out of the inning and a hard rain brought the game to an end.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company