O'Connor Fails to Provide Any Answers for Nationals

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Washington Nationals, in their five-man pitching rotation, have four sub-4.00 ERAs and one reliably sub-par interruption. Last night, Mike O'Connor auditioned for the open spot vacated by winless Matt Chico and subbed ineffectiveness with more ineffectiveness. He failed to finish the fourth inning, throwing 78 pitches, exactly half of them for strikes. He surrendered a home run on his first pitch, created the mess of Florida's seven-run fourth, and -- in the final testament to a rough night -- allowed a walk even after issuing his final pitch.

O'Connor's first start of the season coincided with and largely created Washington's ugliest game so far: an 11-0 loss to the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park, the team's fourth loss in five games. It also heightened questions about the Nationals' final rotation spot, which has contributed one quality start in 2008.

If nothing else, O'Connor still owned his starter's spot several minutes after the game. "As of now, yeah," Manager Manny Acta said. "We haven't made any decisions about that. We don't make decisions right away after a bad outing."

Yesterday, the Nationals trailed for good before official scorer Ben Trittipoe announced the time of the first pitch. That was 7:11 p.m., and by then, O'Connor had already hummed an 87-mph fastball to Florida's Cody Ross and twisted around to watch it sail some 20 rows beyond the left field wall.

Though known as a battler, O'Connor never settled down. In 2006, the desperate Nationals asked O'Connor, pitching at the time in Class AAA New Orleans, to help a rotation in need of bodies. O'Connor lacked a top-flight fastball and a high-profile pedigree, but he responded with a 3-8 record and a 4.80 ERA. In all, 21 games, 20 starts, and a job well done.

After returning to the minors in 2007, recovering from left elbow surgery, O'Connor used his first month in Class AAA Columbus this year to earn a promotion. He had two wins and a paper-thin ERA (1.96). One of his catchers there, Jesús Flores -- who started last night for the Nationals and is back in the major leagues because of injuries to Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada -- learned to appreciate O'Connor's change-up and smarts. Those two factors, coupled with the right control, could turn O'Connor, 27, into a legitimate long-term starter.

One hour before the game, O'Connor sat in the clubhouse flanked by Flores and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. They discussed the Florida lineup, and how to prevent the Marlins from defeating the Nationals for the seventh time in eight games this year. Flores wanted pitches low in the strike zone. They discussed a batter-by-batter approach; Ross, for instance, was most dangerous when given a fastball.

But little of the preparation helped. The next time O'Connor, Flores and St. Claire met together, they were all on the mound in the third inning. The bases were loaded thanks to a four-pitch walk, a hit surrendered to Hanley Ramírez and a full-count walk to Jorge Cantú. After St. Claire returned to the dugout, O'Connor returned his attention to the Florida hitter, Dan Uggla. He threw a wild pitch, inside and in the dirt, bringing home the Marlins' second run.

One inning later, a shaky start became a derailment. The announced crowd of 28,663 groaned about another inning-opening homer, this one by Wes Helms. It booed O'Connor's walk to Ross. It watched as the game received its official stamp of misery, when Jeremy Hermida punched a weak single to right while breaking his bat. With a 2-0 count on Cantú, O'Connor was finally pulled.

"The way I was throwing," O'Connor said, "I can't say anything about him taking me out at that point."

When his replacement, Joel Hanrahan, issued two more balls, including a wild pitch, Cantú's walk was charged to O'Connor.

So were three of the four additional runs that scored that inning.

"It's definitely disappointing," O'Connor said of his performance, which included nine earned runs and six walks. "I know I'm better than that."

With the game so far out of reach, Washington never seriously threatened. Florida starter Andrew Miller, hit hard by the Nationals in two previous starts this year, allowed only two hits in seven innings. Two Florida relievers finished things off and iced the shutout, the Nationals' fifth of the season.

Those in the Nationals' lineup, though, know that offense can only supplement an adequate start. "As the pitching goes, we go," Ryan Zimmerman said.

And in this case, the pitching went to ruin. "Very poor control, less than 50 percent of his pitches for strikes," Acta said, describing his starter. "Actually he couldn't throw any of his pitches for strikes. Not a very pretty outing."

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