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Scott Olsen gets his groove back, leads the Washington Nationals to a 5-3 win over the Atlanta Braves

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; D03

After two months of what he called "basically the worst experience you can have," Scott Olsen resurfaced Thursday afternoon on the Nationals Park mound, his style unchanged by the rigors of his season.

Hip-hop music blared as he warmed up, his baggy jersey billowing in the breeze. Olsen covered his face with his black glove, concealing everything but his eyes. After pitches -- sinkers and change-ups pumped into the strike zone -- he stomped a few steps toward the catcher and stuck out his glove, operating like he was in a hurry, like he had something to prove.

"He's got that little bit of swagger," Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "His stuff is good. But he thinks he's a left-handed Strasburg out there."

Olsen pitched with his usual audacity in his first start in 69 days as the Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves, 5-3, securing their first series victory of the season's second half in a rain-delayed game before 30,263. He also mixed in some joy, back in the majors after more hard, mundane rehab of his surgically repaired left shoulder.

"The last 2 1/2 months haven't really been a whole lot of fun," Olsen said. "It makes days like today even more fun than they are, just to know the amount of work and effort you had to go through. At least you're doing it for something."

That something was lifting the Nationals to a series victory over the first-place Braves despite their ace getting scratched and having their horse of a No. 2 starter contribute less than five innings. Nationals relievers pitched 16 2/3 scoreless innings, the three zeros Thursday coming from Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Matt Capps. Adam Dunn and Ian Desmond hit solo home runs, and Wil Nieves slapped a two-RBI single.

"That's not an ideal series, right, with the way things went," Storen said. "For us to work through that, play well, was really big for us. It was a gut-check."

Olsen knows about those. In six innings before biblical rain delayed the game, he allowed five hits and two walks (one intentional) in what counted officially as a quality start. He threw 52 strikes in 80 pitches, firing his fastball in the low 90s. He breezed through the first inning with three groundouts on seven pitches and paid dearly for only one pitch, a high fastball in the fourth inning that Matt Diaz deposited in the left field seats for a two-run home run.

Olsen kept pitches down, featured his change-up, and threw to both sides of the plate. He threw a first-pitch strike to 15 of 25 batters, not counting the intentional walk. He induced eight groundball outs and struck out one.

"I was not surprised at all," McCatty said. "I really kind of expected it. When he goes out there, I love watching him pitch. He has that little chip on there."

In his time on the mound, Olsen had proven his left shoulder's fitness, something he's had to do all season. Olsen reported to spring training throwing his fastball in the low 80s. "I feel good," he kept telling the Nationals. "I'm going to get stronger." In his final start of the spring, he touched 90 mph.

"He was right," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "He really did."

Still, Olsen began the year in the minor leagues. He was stunned at the assignment, but he made just one start for Class AAA Syracuse before joining the Nationals. He went 2-2 with a 3.77 ERA, but over a span of five starts held batters to a .229 average and posted a 1.11 ERA.

Even during those final starts, something was off. He felt extra soreness and stiffness in his shoulder between starts, the effects of scar tissue left over from his surgery. He threw easy in side sessions, only working on the touch and feel of his pitches.

The pain "just wouldn't go away," Olsen said. "It would literally take every one of the days between starts until I felt better again. You can't live your life like that. I had to stop. I had to shut it down."

On May 21, before his start against the Baltimore Orioles, McCatty could sense something wrong in the bullpen; Olsen shrugged him off. Olsen lasted just three innings before the Nationals pulled him. "I just couldn't let him do it anymore," McCatty said.

Finally, Olsen shed the soreness in his shoulder enough to make three rehab starts and convince the Nationals he was ready. They wanted to give him one more minor league start, but the vacancy created by J.D. Martin's trip to the disabled list rushed him back.

Not that Olsen minded. When he exited in the sixth inning Thursday, he knew he had a chance to win. What meant even more was the chance, finally, to restart his season.

"Hopefully the arm strength he's built up now and the way he feels now will give him a chance to pitch more like he's capable of pitching," Riggleman said. "We still have plenty of time to turn this into a good season for him."

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