By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009
Ninety-eight pitches into his afternoon, Scott Olsen stood on the pitcher's mound, watching everybody converge on him like some claw closing its fist. The infielders joined by his side, the full sayonara conference, and there came Washington Nationals Manager Manny Acta, out of the dugout, past the first base line, ready to pluck the ball from his pitcher's hand and pass it along to somebody else.
"I thought I was done," Olsen said.
Viewed from above, the ensuing meeting took Olsen's toughness quotient to a new level and provided the galvanizing moment in Washington's 5-3 victory against the Atlanta Braves. The claw of humanity came in for the swipe, and Olsen was still there, defiant, dead-set on finishing his own game. Acta walked back to the dugout. The pitcher, still on the mound, had his Maximus moment. Nationals Park roared. Like that, Olsen -- the stepbrother in Washington's homegrown rotation -- had won the crowd.
"When Manny walked off the mound in the eighth," Olsen said, "I heard 'em."
Let's note this much: The onlookers were duped. This was no stand-down. Olsen was just listening to orders, and Acta, all along, intended the meeting only to rally Olsen, to remind him to shake off those back-to-back walks and record the eighth inning's final out.
Either way, though, Olsen's afternoon -- and his reception -- benefited. He ended up grinding through that jam and going 8 2/3 innings, an effort that created the latest, strangest bend in Washington's season. Suddenly, this 25-year-old left-hander, beaten by all comers in his first eight starts this year, among the worst starters in the National League in April and May, all but discarded and forgotten as a crop of shiny rookies invaded the rotation, has somehow returned from injury to look like the exact pitcher Washington always hoped for. Now, Olsen is throwing harder, pushing deeper into games, and reestablishing himself as (perhaps) a component of the organization's future. It's only been two games, so keep the champagne corks screwed tight, but since coming off the disabled list, Olsen is 1-0 with a 2.87 ERA (15 2/3 IP, five earned runs). He is, in short, a different pitcher.
And a healthy one. Olsen spent much of June on the disabled list, dealing with and recovering from left shoulder tendinitis. Though he didn't speak about an injury during the earlier part of the season, Olsen hinted yesterday that his arm hurt well before he took a break.
"Yeah, I just didn't feel very good overall," Olsen said. "That's pretty much as far into detail with that as I'm going to go."
After the victory, Washington's second in a row, Olsen found himself in a buoyant clubhouse. If an effective Olsen was this team's latest discovery, a standout center fielder, Nyjer Morgan, was its latest revelation. Morgan's first series with Washington, since being acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, showcased his value. Though Morgan went 3 for 5 with an RBI, a run scored and a stolen base yesterday, he also contributed at least two defensive plays that no other center fielder on the roster could have made.
In the sixth, with two on and one out, Morgan glided back for an over-the-shoulder catch on a Chipper Jones liner. In the eighth, just seconds after diving for (and just falling short of) a Martin Prado liner, Morgan scrambled to his feet, grabbed the ball, and threw out Prado at second.
"He's gonna take a lot of bases away from guys," Adam Dunn said.
"Phenomenal," Olsen said. "A great, great pick-up for us. He can flat-out run the ball down better than most center fielders I've ever seen. He's a lot like Juan Pierre out there, who I was a teammate with in 2005. To know he's out there behind you and can run things down, it gives me that extra confidence that I can give up balls to the gaps and they have a chance to be caught."
Olsen, after surviving the eighth inning, entered the ninth holding a 5-1 lead -- mostly the product of a hitting barrage against Atlanta starter Derek Lowe. Olsen wanted his first career complete game. He got within one out, and faced Nate McLouth with a runner on third. The 116th pitch of Olsen's afternoon was a rare mistake: a middle-of-the-plate fastball that McLouth popped over the right-center field wall, shaving Washington's lead to two.
This time, Acta again emerged from the dugout. Olsen didn't argue. The pitcher, while walking off the mound, covered his mouth with his black mitt. That helped muffle his disappointment as he cussed himself.
Washington tempted an agonizing ending. Closer Mike MacDougal gave up a single to Prado, then faced Jones, the potential tying run. With the count 3-2, Jones fouled off a fastball.
Cued for a victory, a few fireworks shot up from right field.
Bang, zoom, oops.
Jones turned toward the Washington dugout and said, "You've got one more pitch, bro."
Jones ended up walking, but then MacDougal forced Brian McCann to bounce to first, ending the game and preserving Olsen's first win since April 29.
"We've got to win a little more," catcher Josh Bard said, "for [the fireworks operators] to get some practice."