GW graduate O’Connor starts, falls for Nationals

Mike O’Connor’s pitching motion isn’t overly distinct. But when he coils his body, reaches his long left arm far back and releases a fastball, it’s like he is really willing the ball across home plate. Almost like he’s trying to will himself back into the major leagues – this time, to stay.

It’s a task that isn’t easy. O’Connor, a 2002 GW graduate, proved that on Saturday in his first major league start in nearly 20 months for the Washington Nationals.

His start against the Florida Marlins might have been an opportunity for the 27-year-old to string a few good innings together and turn some heads. Instead, O’Connor looked overmatched – and Sunday, the Associated Press reported he had been optioned back to the Nationals’ AAA affiliate.

Marlins’ centerfielder Cody Ross sent O’Connor’s first pitch of the evening deep into the left field stands; first baseman Wes Helms touched him for another homer in the fourth, and after giving up a total of nine earned runs on six hits and six walks, O’Connor exited the game in the fourth inning much to the delight of Nationals fans. Washington would go on to lose 11-0, earning O’Connor his first loss of the year.

“I wasn’t able to get the ball down, I got behind, I wasn’t able to throw offspeed for strikes and just had a tough game,” he said Saturday.

Nationals’ manager Manny Acta’s assessment wasn’t much brighter.

“(He had) very poor control,” Acta said. “He couldn’t throw any of his pitches for strikes. It wasn’t a very pretty outing.”

O’Connor first broke into the big leagues in 2006 and started 20 games for the Nationals, recording a record of 3-8. But after left elbow surgery in Nov. 2006, he didn’t pitch until June – and spent the entire season playing for Washington’s AA affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa.

O’Connor started this season playing for the Nationals’ AAA squad in Columbus, Ohio, but was called up April 24 to replace Nationals pitcher Ray King. After four relief appearances in which O’Connor earned one victory but sported a 6.35 earned run average, Acta switched him to the starting rotation.

Acta said Wednesday that O’Connor’s start wouldn’t be a one game tryout, according to a news release. But in the major leagues, coaches, fans and the media see the good (and bad) nights players have. And unfortunately for O’Connor, 28,663 pairs of eyes were in the stands Saturday.

In a week, GW’s class of 2008 will graduate and make their first forays into the professional world. Six years after his graduation, O’Connor is still searching for job security. He’s only the fourth Colonial to ever make the big leagues – and he knows no one’s spot is guaranteed.

“I think everybody here feels like you have to earn your spot here,” he said. “If you don’t go out there and do your job, everyone’s replaceable.”

His demotion Sunday showed how true those words are. But if his final comment Saturday is any indication, O’Connor has the attitude required to get back to the top level.

“(Tonight) was definitely disappointing,” he said. “But I have confidence in myself, I know I’m better than that and next time out I’ll do better.”

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