Injury throws curve at Nationals' O'Connor

March 05, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun Reporter

VIERA, Fla. -- Turn the clock back exactly one year and find Mike O'Connor in minor league camp here. The skinny kid from Baltimore was just hoping for a shot at Double-A ball after what seemed like a lifetime in Single-A.

Tell him back then that in spring 2007 he'd be in the Washington Nationals' major league camp and he would have done cartwheels.

He would have taken that scenario under any circumstance.

But not anymore. Not when it means he can watch, but not pitch.

"It's crazy looking back on it and just how quickly things change," said O'Connor, a 1998 Mount St. Joseph graduate. "Looking back on the year before - being in spring training in minor league camp at this time - makes me think back about how different things are at this point. Things change so quickly in this game."

Now, O'Connor is wearing a Nationals uniform and sitting on pitchers row. But that's about it. Offseason surgery to remove bone chips and repair cartilage in his left elbow has him shelved indefinitely. He'll start the season on the disabled list.

"It is frustrating, but it is something you can't rush," O'Connor said. "Being here, the first time in big league camp, and there is a lot of opportunity around this year, so it's tough. But I can't really force the issue and try to rush and then end up right back where I was at the end of last season."

New manager Manny Acta has given the 26-year-old marching orders: You did enough last year. You don't need to impress me. Just get healthy.

O'Connor is trying to pace himself. He's on a light throwing program and hasn't yet pitched from a mound. His goal is to be back by May.

"If things go smoothly, I would hopefully just miss the first month, maybe less," O'Connor said. "It depends what goes on the next couple weeks. It could go quicker than what they say, could go slower."

O'Connor's baseball career started more slowly than he would have liked. Then it hit warp speed last year. After four seasons at Single-A, O'Connor was accelerated to Triple-A New Orleans to start last season, skipping Double-A, where he assumed he would begin 2006.

He excelled at New Orleans, and was promoted to the big league club by late April. In his first six Nationals decisions, he was 3-3 with a 3.04 ERA, an amazing beginning for a left-handed pitcher exposed - and not taken - in the 2005 Rule 5 draft.

But things started to go wrong. He wasn't the same pitcher in June and July.

"I wasn't bouncing back. I wasn't able to finish off a lot of my pitches," O'Connor said. "And my breaking ball just didn't have the snap on it that it did. It kind of wore on me as time went on."

The truth is his elbow was hurting. But he tried to ignore it. It wasn't until he was being demoted to New Orleans when he spoke up - drawing the ire of team management for not mentioning it sooner.

"The hardest thing when you are playing is to say that something is not right. I thought I could pitch through it. I thought I could," O'Connor said.

It was a lesson learned. And it's helping him be a little more patient this spring. But that doesn't make his situation any easier. The Nationals have only one starter, John Patterson, set in the rotation. Conceivably, O'Connor could have been the No. 2 starter if he were healthy.

Still, he has a place with the Nationals now, something that was uncertain at this time last year. He represented the club in its caravan this winter.

"You get to meet fans. It's fun," he said. "It was a busy eight days. We were on an eight-day trip, all day, every day. But it wasn't bad."

Also, making the big leagues meant he could move out of his parents' Ellicott City home. And, for the first time in his pro baseball life, he didn't have to work another job in the offseason. In previous winters, he was a courier for a friend's fundraising company, "driving around all over the place."

"Hopefully, never again," he said of the part-time job. "It's just one of those things you have to do. The minor leagues are completely different. You don't make much money, so you have to make money in the offseason to survive."

It's been a whirlwind year for O'Connor. From obscurity, to the majors, to the disabled list, to his first big league camp, waiting for the next chapter to unfold.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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