Rookie Gives Nats A Lift

The Nationals' Mike O'Connor wins his first major league game, striking out six in seven innings against the Mets.
The Nationals' Mike O'Connor wins his first major league game, striking out six in seven innings against the Mets. (By Nick Laham -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

NEW YORK, May 2 -- At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, a couple of hours before he made his second major league start against a group of multimillionaires who he had never faced before, Mike O'Connor sat down in the visitors' clubhouse at Shea Stadium to eat a ham-and-cheese sandwich on white bread. He washed it down with orange Gatorade, a simple meal fit for a teenager after school.

Some five hours later, when he departed the mound at Shea Stadium, O'Connor left behind a performance worthy of a veteran, seven innings in which he allowed two hits, lifting the Washington Nationals past the New York Mets, 6-2, a win as badly needed as any the Nationals have had this year behind a performance as unlikely as they come.

"I can't describe it," Manager Frank Robinson said. "My vocabulary's not that good."

O'Connor, a 25-year-old left-hander from Ellicott City, Md., and George Washington University, isn't seen within the Nationals' organization as a top prospect. Labels, though, can be deceiving, because they often do not take into account traits such as poise and craftiness. He rarely throws a fastball more than 86 mph, yet in two major league starts -- one against the potent St. Louis Cardinals, the other against the even more-powerful Mets -- he has allowed one earned run in 12 innings, good for an ERA of 0.75.

"I felt pretty good," he said, and it is little wonder. O'Connor had never faced a single hitter in either the Cardinals' or Mets' lineups before, yet he baffled nearly all of them. Tuesday night, when the Nationals came in as losers in eight of their previous nine games, he allowed a homer to the second man he faced, catcher Paul Lo Duca, then didn't yield another hit until Lo Duca's single in the sixth, enough to send the Nationals back to RFK Stadium for a five-game homestand with a modicum of hope.

"We needed a spark," center fielder Marlon Byrd said. "And hopefully, this is it."

Byrd provided some spark, going 3 for 4 with a pair of doubles from the leadoff spot, scoring three runs. He twice crossed the plate on home runs, the first from Alfonso Soriano in the third, the second from pinch hitter Damian Jackson in the seventh. The performance helped solidify the leadoff spot for Byrd, a move that allows the more powerful Soriano to hit down in the order, where he might drive in more runs.

"He'll take a walk," Robinson said of Byrd. "He'll get a base hit. He's not swinging for the fences. . . . He's just trying to put a good swing on the ball."

That he is. After the first game of the now-completed six-game trip -- on which the Nationals went 2-4 -- Byrd was hitting .171. But since Ryan Church came down with a virus in St. Louis, Byrd has taken advantage of the opportunity to play regularly. He is now 10 for his last 17 to raise his average to .308, and Robinson said he will remain atop the lineup for the foreseeable future.

O'Connor, too, will remain in the rotation. He joined the club last Thursday and pitched that night in St. Louis, allowing three unearned runs in five innings in place of would-be ace John Patterson, out with a forearm strain.

There is almost no overstating the awkwardness of the situation into which O'Connor walked. He was not invited to major league spring training camp, and he had only played with one of his new teammates -- reliever Jason Bergmann -- in the past. Over the past week, he has generally moved around the clubhouse quietly, speaking when spoken to.

Tuesday, though, he said he felt in a rhythm.

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