By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; D01
Standing in the Washington Nationals' bullpen Friday evening, Steve McCatty peered over Scott Olsen's shoulder and sensed something off. Olsen didn't look loose to McCatty, the Nationals' pitching coach. McCatty asked Olsen if he felt okay.
"The kid's a tough kid," McCatty said later. "He wouldn't say anything."
Olsen would let the Nationals know soon enough, not with words, but with his performance in a 5-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Already mired in their most ragged stretch of the season, the Nationals absorbed another dose of hardship before 27,738 at Nationals Park. Olsen, just becoming one of their steadiest starters, left his start after only three innings with stiffness in his left shoulder. The Nationals suffered their seventh loss in eight games and dropped to 21-22, under .500 for first time since April 15.
Olsen started the season in the minor leagues, nearly threw a no-hitter and, for the past month, became one of the most effective starting pitchers in the major leagues. In his return from shoulder surgery, Olsen's year kept getting better and better. And then came Friday night, when residue from his operation surfaced for the first time.
The Nationals consider Olsen day-to-day, but that seems like a guess tinged with optimism. Olsen was not present in the clubhouse while reporters were allowed inside. Both McCatty and Manager Jim Riggleman were unclear of the extent of Olsen's injury. They did not know for certain if he would make his next start, but neither expressed immediate concern about what seems like a distinct possibility: Olsen spending time on the disabled list.
"I think it's too early to say that," Riggleman said. "I just know he was uncomfortable pitching there. We knew from his bullpen warming up, he wasn't himself."
The rest of the Nationals could tell, too. As Olsen staggered through the opening innings, the relievers in the Washington bullpen noticed what McCatty had seen: Olsen was not pitching like normal. Tyler Walker ambled over to Miguel Batista, the Nationals' main long reliever. "You should be ready," Walker told him. "Because something is going to happen."
"We looked at him, and we knew something was wrong," Batista said. "When you see a guy like Olsen that likes to get very aggressive with his fastball, and he's throwing the ball and he's not putting that attitude behind it, you know something is wrong."
After Olsen cruised through the first inning, the Orioles frustrated him for the rest of his short night. Adam Jones crunched a two-run homer over the wall in right field.
Olsen's first two pitches of the third inning portended trouble. He threw Ty Wigginton two fastballs, the first 87 mph and the second 86. Olsen's fastballs throughout the season have fluctuated between 89 and 91 mph. Olsen's heater returned to normal velocity after Wigginton's at-bat, but the pitches offered a clue something was amiss.
In his previous three starts, Olsen had walked three batters. Before the third ended on Friday, he had matched that total in one inning. "That was noticeable," McCatty said. "Your command will go." Olsen recorded two quick outs, then induced a dribbler that Miguel Tejada turned into an infield single. Olsen then walked Luke Scott and Jones. With the bases loaded, Craig Tatum smacked a single to center, scoring two and giving the Orioles a 4-0 lead.
Olsen walked one more batter and escaped the jam when Nick Markakis smoked a liner back at him. Olsen snared the ball. As he trudged off the mound, Olsen flipped the ball over his shoulder with his glove. In the bottom of the inning, Liván Hernández pinch-hit for him.
Entering last night, Olsen had a 1.11 ERA over his past five starts, third best in the majors during that span, behind only David Price and Ubaldo Jiménez. Olsen had joined Hernández as perhaps the Nationals' most trusted starter. By the end of Friday night, Olsen's season, filled with such promise, had taken a dispiriting turn. The rest of his team, surely, could relate.
Orioles starter David Hernández, 0-5 with a 5.84 entering the night, no-hit the Nationals into the fifth inning. The lone hit off Hernández came when Batista grounded a single up the middle with two outs in the fifth, his first hit since Aug. 9, 2006. ("I only have one technique when it comes to hitting," Batista said. "Swing hard in case you hit it.")
Batista bailed out the Nationals by pitching four scoreless innings, and Willie Harris gave the Nationals a chance with a two-run home run in the seventh inning. Drew Storen could not keep the deficit at one, surrendering his first major league run. He allowed a leadoff walk, which led to Corey Patterson's RBI single up the middle. The Nationals had to face another loss and the once familiar, now foreign prospect of looking up a .500.
"I don't think we're in a rut," Harris said. "We're just not scoring big runs when we need to. You're going to lose games. We are in a little skid. I don't think it's serious. I don't think it's anything we need to worry about. We just need to continue playing hard baseball."