Overlooked O'Connor opens eyes

He wasn't No. 1 at Mount St. Joe, but Nats rookie has admirers now

May 19, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Mike O'Connor kept falling through baseball's cracks.

That's what happens when you're signpost skinny.

And your reach-back, try-and-hit-this heater sits at 87 mph. And when you're overshadowed in high school by a future big league superstar. And when you go to a college known for academics, not baseball.

O'Connor, now the Washington Nationals' surprise rookie starter, was just another teen with solid skills and an unrealistic baseball dream when he graduated from Mount St. Joseph in 1998.

After a strong senior season at the Baltimore-area power - one in which he won Most Valuable Pitcher at the annual Crown All-Star Game but no spot on The Sun's All-Metro team - O'Connor landed a scholarship to George Washington University.

That's where these stories often end. A fine career at a respected college. A finance degree, a good job and a promising future pocketed with plenty of glory days.

But two things interrupted O'Connor's descent into normality: a competitiveness his parents noticed when he was just a boy, and his left arm.

"I never walk away from lefties," said Alex Smith, the Nationals' Middle Atlantic area scout who signed O'Connor. "If they get over that 80-mph mark you don't walk away. You always keep track of them."

The first time Smith saw the Ellicott City kid, he was a "thin-boned" 6-foot-1, 140-pound freshman with a 76-mph fastball. Smith kept a watchful eye on O'Connor, but it wasn't easy. He missed his junior season with a muscle injury. And in his senior season, every scout worth a stopwatch was on the Irvington campus to ogle O'Connor's teammate, third baseman Mark Teixeira, The Sun's All-Metro Player of the Year and now an All-Star first baseman with the Texas Rangers.

Not only was O'Connor not the best player on his team, but he also lacked the most intriguing arm in his school. That belonged to a junior varsity freshman named Gavin Floyd, a current member of the Philadelphia Phillies' rotation.

Mount St. Joseph head coach Dave Norton said Teixeira and Floyd were as likely major league candidates as any high school player could be; O'Connor, not so much.

"We knew he was a good talent," Norton said. "He was our No. 1 pitcher. But there wasn't anything that would make you say, `He'll definitely be a major leaguer.'"

What O'Connor possessed was that unrelenting fire. His father saw it early on, when the 10-year-old tried out for a traveling soccer team. The coach had the kids run sprints in pairs.

"In every case, he'd pull away or catch up; nobody could beat him," said his father, Tom O'Connor. "You put a watch on him and you'd never say he was the fastest kid, but when he has to do something, he bears down."

Norton remembers in O'Connor's senior season taking his Gaels to a prestigious California tournament in which the East Coast teams were given little chance to compete. But O'Connor pitched a shutout in the opener against the host club, serving notice that Mount St. Joe wasn't a pushover.

"That's always the kind of attitude Mike had," Norton said. "Mike loves the game, wants to compete, wants to play."

In O'Connor's senior year in college, Smith checked to see how the lefty had progressed. He saw a 6-foot-3, 170-pound O'Connor consistently attack hitters, throw an average curveball and a good changeup for strikes and occasionally touch 90 mph on the radar gun.

Smith, then representing the Montreal Expos, turned to a scout with the Atlanta Braves and said, "I think we just stumbled onto a pretty good senior signing."

The Expos, the Nationals' predecessor, took O'Connor in the seventh round of the 2002 amateur draft. He spent his first four seasons in various stages of low minor league ball, posting a 28-25 record and a 3.71 ERA. Last season, at Single-A Potomac, O'Connor went 10-11 with a 3.54 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 167 2/3 innings - good enough to be named the organization's 2005 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

But in the typical trajectory of O'Connor's career, his stock barely blipped. Baseball America didn't list him among the team's top 30 prospects, even though the Nationals' system was ranked 24th in the majors. After all, he was 25 and still in Single-A. To make matters worse, the Nationals didn't protect him in the Rule 5 draft, and no other team took a flier on the lefty with the good numbers.

This spring, O'Connor was ticketed for Double-A Harrisburg when Nationals general manager Jim Bowden and pitching coach Randy St. Claire were in minor league camp checking out one of their veteran pitchers.

Bowden had heard from one of his special advisers that, under no circumstances, should he include O'Connor in a trade he was working on. That made Bowden especially eager to see him throw.

"It looked like he had absolutely no fear and knew how to pitch," Bowden said. "So we said, `Let's put him in Triple-A and see how he does.'"

Some Nationals player development people objected, but Bowden figured based on O'Connor's age and the team's lack of pitching prospects, he'd take a chance.

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