A More Confident Olson Is Benefiting the Orioles

Orioles lefty Garrett Olson has a 2.95 ERA, down from 7.79 last season.
Orioles lefty Garrett Olson has a 2.95 ERA, down from 7.79 last season. (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)
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By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo., May 12 -- During slow times in the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse, while most of his teammates fill out crossword puzzles, skim through magazines or watch movies, pitcher Garrett Olson prefers reading books. Which is why, a few hours before his scheduled start in Oakland last week, Olson leaned back in a comfortable couch and read.

He'll read anything that catches his attention: In Oakland it was the investment primer "Rule #1: The Simple Strategy for Successful Investing in Only 15 Minutes a Week!" In the minors, it was "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." In spring training, it was the novel "The Lovely Bones."

Aside from relieving boredom, Olson's reading habit has served a more practical purpose. The pregame reading is one of the ways that Olson has learned to relax, an ability has helped him thrive in the major leagues for the first time in his career.

"It's a good skill," said Olson, 24, who has emerged as the latest surprise on the Orioles' pitching staff. "I think the biggest thing is just being more relaxed and believing in myself."

Taking the injured Adam Loewen's spot in the rotation, Olson has strung together three strong starts since being recalled from Class AAA Norfolk on April 29. He has cut down on his walks and pitched to a 2.95 ERA, all after he posted a 7.79 ERA in seven starts over three stints with the Orioles last season.

In 2007, Olson seemed to make it painfully clear that he wasn't ready to pitch in the major leagues. But this season, Olson has pitched well enough to potentially force the Orioles into a quandary when Loewen returns from the disabled list.

"I definitely feel like I can play here," he said. "If they decide to send me down, if that time comes, that's fine, too. I can always work on things to get better here or in Triple-A. But I feel like I can definitely play with this team, and the decision is up to them."

Aside from his inability to simply relax, there were plenty of technical reasons that the opening chapter of Olson's career didn't read nearly as well as chapter two.

The left-hander battled with inconsistent command of his fastball, which led to other problems that kept him from escaping what became a pattern of wild starts: nibbling around the strike zone, pitching behind in counts and surrendering walks.

But for Olson, who chose to sign as an Orioles supplemental round draft pick in 2005 instead of completing his studies in mechanical engineering at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, the issues were mental as well. His desire to please his teammates had become so much of a burden that Manager Dave Trembley noticed Olson trying to compensate by overthrowing, which only made matters worse.

"A lot of times I'd go one speed, and I guess that's fast," Olson said. "I tried to do everything right and quick. But sometimes you've just got to take a step back and kind of evaluate the situation, and sometimes more is less."

That time for evaluation came during the offseason, when Olson decided to start over, in part by convincing himself that last season was an aberration. "That wasn't me," he said.

Olson enjoyed a solid spring, though his command was still not sharp enough to convince Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz that he was ready. But after he posted a 1.85 ERA in five starts with Norfolk, Olson earned his second chance.

The difference was clear almost immediately. He looked like a different pitcher in his first appearance this season -- a victory against Tampa Bay. It was a departure from the anxiety-ridden pitcher who struggled in three call-ups last season.

Trembley said that aside from Olson's sharper command of his fastball and improved bite on his breaking pitches, one of the biggest differences over last year was his confidence level. Judging by Olson's body language alone, Trembley said, the pitcher looks more relaxed than at any point last season.

"I give him a lot of credit," said Trembley, who in the past has been one of Olson's sharpest critics. "He's come a long way in a very short amount of time."

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