By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
MIAMI, June 29 -- Such a promising return, such a pretty performance, such a hard-fought seven innings, all for naught after Washington Nationals Manager Manny Acta pulled starting pitcher Scott Olsen and asked his bullpen not to mess things up.
Faster than Nationals fans could question the decision to pinch-hit for the surprisingly brilliant Olsen, the Florida Marlins broke open a tie game in the eighth inning Monday and handed Washington a 4-2 defeat, its seventh straight loss to the Marlins this season.
For the few thousand fans that bothered to wait out the 37-minute rain delay at Land Shark Stadium, the game produced a gripping pitching duel between two old friends, as Olsen's nearly flawless effort in his first outing in six weeks had been matched virtually pitch-by-pitch the Marlins' up-and-down Ricky Nolasco.
But with the score locked up in the eighth and Olsen due at the plate with nobody on and one out, Acta summoned Elijah Dukes to pinch-hit. Olsen had, after all, already thrown 94 pitches -- 66 were strikes -- in his return from left shoulder tendinitis. Acta said he simply wasn't going to risk letting him stay out there longer.
"This is a different environment," Acta said. "This is not the minor leagues. It's Miami. It's humid. He really battled for us today, so 90 [pitches] was his top today."
Said Olsen: "I felt good enough to go back out there, but my spot came up. That's how the National League works."
The move put Olsen, who said his shoulder is pain-free, on the bench after a night in which his fastball hit the low 90s and his slider stayed down. Other than a allowing a pair of runs on four hits in the third, Olsen had shut down the Marlins, retiring 13 of the last 14 batters he faced, including six on strikeouts.
"He was throwing strikes, putting it in the zone, getting ahead in the count," Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramírez said.
Dukes, the pinch-hitter, flew out and a rally never materialized -- except for the one the Marlins immediately produced. In the bottom of the eighth, pinch-hitter Wes Helms promptly doubled off of reliever Ron Villone, and pinch-runner Alejandro De Aza moved around to score on a pair of sacrifices. That ended Villone's night, and things got better for Florida when Julián Tavárez took over.
He allowed a double to Ramírez, then walked three straight batters (the first intentionally) to give the Marlins their margin of victory.
"There's no excuse for it," Villone said. "It was great to see [Olsen] come back and throw the ball well. He deserved better."
Olsen had entered the game with a 7.24 earned-run average; Nolasco's 6.42 ERA was built around a brief demotion to Class AAA. Yet each put together mostly masterful work, and got beat up in just one ugly inning. Neither pitcher walked a single batter. In seven innings, Olsen allowed two runs on six hits with seven strikeouts. Nolasco pitched eight innings, giving up two runs on four hits with eight strikeouts.
"He just flat-out toyed with us" after the second inning, Acta said about Nolasco.
On the first pitch of the second, Ryan Zimmerman blasted his 13th home run of the season, giving the Nationals a 1-0 lead. One out later, Willingham stroked a ground-rule double to the deepest part of center field -- the ball carried about 420 feet -- and came home on an infield single by Wil Nieves. The Nationals, however, produced just three base runners after that.
Olsen allowed a leadoff double to Brett Carroll in the third inning, a pair of singles and a triple off the wall by speedster Emilio Bonifacio to tie the score.
"It's encouraging to see Olsen pitch well," Acta said. "Our bullpen is what it is, it's been struggling most of the year. . . . We got to take the positive out of it."
Acquired last year along with Willingham in the trade that sent Bonifacio to Florida, Olsen had been placed on the disabled list May 18. Considering his horrific 1-4 start and the emergence of youngsters Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmermann and Craig Stammen, Olsen had been largely forgotten.
And, even worse, his return to the active roster was greeted with seemingly more trepidation than excitement -- "hopefully we'll see a better performance from him this time around," Acta said before the game. "We're looking forward to him bouncing back."
Bounce back he did. Olsen said a new training regimen that included repetitions with five- to eight-pound weights seemed to have strengthened his arm, bringing back the fastball that he struggled to find earlier in the season.
"It's huge for me," Olsen said. "I'm not Jamie Moyer. I can't really be hugely successful throwing 82 or 83. I need to be up there around 90 to have success."