For Nats, Long Shots Hitting Spots

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pictures of Mike O'Connor and Shawn Hill should be posted on the walls of every minor league clubhouse. They symbolize hope. If they can make it to the Nats' rotation, emerging as saviors of a decimated staff, then who is beyond career redemption?

And if they keep pitching as they have, who is to say that one or even both might not become fixtures in Washington? Baseball, and especially pitching, is as much art as science, as much personality as talent. What works in theory, like a blazing fastball, and what succeeds in reality, like competitiveness, control and intelligence, often prove quite different.

Consider the ludicrous sequence of coincidences that had to fall in place for these two 25-year-old rookies, buried deep in the Nationals' system, to get their chances and, so far, capitalize on them splendidly. First, Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco left town last winter. Then Brian Lawrence, acquired to help replace them, was lost for the year before he pitched an inning. Pedro Astacio, brought in to replace him, was hurt immediately and hasn't pitched yet.

Ryan Drese and Zach Day then joined the rotation but their arms blew out faster than rotten garden hoses in spring. With John Patterson disabled since April, handsome Billy Traber got his chance, too. At 6 feet 5, he looked the part, but lasted two starts.

So, there was no choice. Gazing deep into a farm system universally regarded as dismal, the Nats covered their eyes and put the gangly 6-3 O'Connor, from George Washington University, in their rotation on April 27. Exactly a month later, on May 27, Hill, who missed the entire '05 season, was added to their desperation rotation.

Thus, the Nats put their flimsy fate in the hands of a bumptious, sunken-chested, 170-pound southpaw with a teenager's face and a phlegmatic, right-handed Canadian with sunken eyes who looks like he hasn't slept since infancy. One seems like he might crumple on the mound, the other like he might simply fall asleep. Yet they have believed in themselves when few others did.

And that has made all the difference. The long-shot heroes, who never met a radar gun that didn't hate them, were tossed the sort of career lifeline that unimposing pitchers seldom receive. Here's the ball, guys. We don't ask much. Just save us.

That's exactly what they've done. The pair have started a dozen games with a 2.69 ERA. Hill blanked the Phils for seven innings Sunday on two hits in his third consecutive quality start. Tonight, O'Connor will face the Rockies at RFK trying for a 10th straight fine outing, a streak that may make him the Nats' permanent southpaw starter.

"A lot of times, people never get a chance because enough pitchers ahead of you aren't going to lose their spots. It's not like you want people to get hurt," said O'Connor (3-3, 3.04 ERA), "but it's all about getting here."

Or, in Hill's case, getting back. A prospect who won a game for Montreal in '04, he fell off the sport's radar after reconstructive elbow surgery cost him all of '05. "You have bad days when you think you will never get back up here," said Hill (1-1, 1.80 ERA). "A lot of doors had to open for me to get my shot again."

Old heads, it seems, are taken with O'Connor's demeanor. After he ignored a line smash off his pitching shoulder and stayed in a game, Manager Frank Robinson said: "He's a tough kid. I like him. And I hate pitchers."

Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel watched O'Connor battle his tough lineup in two starts, sometimes screaming curses into his glove whenever he failed, then pumping his fist when he worked out of a jam. Manuel particularly liked the cussing part. "O'Connor's gutty. He has a good breaking ball. He's not afraid to throws strikes. And he has personality on the mound, emotion," Manuel said. "You can tell he likes to pitch. A lot of guys have talent. But in this game, personality comes out."

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