No player in the short history of the Washington Nationals history has ever pitched a no-hitter, though the Montreal Expos had one when Dennis Martinez did it on July 28 of 1991. Olsen will now go down as the Nationals' pitcher who came closest to one of baseball's most prized statistics, along with the cycle and the even more prestigious perfect game. Overlooked in all of the hoopla of the feat that never was is the 20 scoreless inning streak (as my counterpart Will has mentioned) Olsen had going until the fateful single by David Ross that got by Ian Desmond in the top of the eighth last night. Take away his one bad start against Colorado this season and Olsen has pitched 26 innings with a 1.73 ERA and 25 strikeouts, nowhere near his 6.03 ERA last season. In fact, the Nationals took the chance of cutting Olsen after last season due to concerns about the shoulder surgery he underwent during July of last season. They were able to resign him, but then thought about letting him loose before the season started in favor of Garrett Mock. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the Nationals brass decided to undertake his one million dollar contract (with additional $2.85 million in incentives) in hopes that he would regain his form with the Syracuse Chiefs. The gamble, so far, has paid off nicely.
In the offseason prior to the 2008 season, Jim Bowden made one final move that may go down as one of the biggest steals in recent baseball history. In what was largely considered a salary dump by the Florida Marlins, the Nationals acquired both Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and minor leaguers J.D. Smolinski and P.J. Dean. Willingham and Olsen are now both on the Nationals active roster and integral parts of the team, while Bonifacio is with the Marlins' AAA team, Smolinski is struggling with their high-A club, and P.J. Dean has since retired. In trading for Olsen, the Nationals were hoping to get the same pitcher who pitched nearly 600 innings of 4.65 ERA ball for the Marlins from 2006-2008, but there were some warning signs that they may have not been getting the same pitcher. Olsen had slowly been losing velocity on his fastball, which had dropped from the low 90s to the high 80s. He was getting away from his best pitch, the slider, and by the 2009 he had lost almost all movement on the pitch. In six of his starts with the Nationals last year he let up 4 or more runs. Whispers started to float around different circles in Washington that Olsen was finished. And then came the revelation that he had been pitching injured for much of the season.
Throughout this season Olsen has slowly been regaining velocity on his fastball and it topped out at 92 MPH last night, although by the seventh inning it was back in the 88-89 MPH range. He threw his changeup an astounding 34 times, while only throwing his fastballs 44 times. Even more amazing is the fact that he has thrown the changeup 47% of the time in his starts this season and, even better, he has located the pitch better than ever before. You hear pitching coaches and baseball analysts talk about saving your best pitches for later in the game, well, the first time through the order against the Braves, Olsen threw the slider only four times, while throwing it 15 times the second and third times through. He has been dominating the first (.225 BAA) and second (.216 BAA) times through the order this season, while maintaining a respectable .276 BAA the third time through. His 8.4 K/9 in 2010 is much closer to his first two years in the bigs than the previous three (ranging from 5.0-6.8 K/9) and he had 8 Ks last night against the Braves, including 3 against the previous nights spoiler, Matt Diaz. His other rate stats, 0.6 HR/9 and 2.9 BB/9, are at career lows. Best of all, the team has only lost one of the five games in which Scott has started.
So now we come full circle to last night, a night in which the team was matched up against Tim Hudson, a very respectable pitcher in his own right. Both pitchers were spectacular on the mound, but Scotty was the better of the two and untouchable through seven innings. As the ball hit by David Ross slowly went past Ian Desmond's glove, almost transfixed in time, the whole stadium held their breath knowing that while the no-hitter was gone, they had witnessed something special and unheard of in Nationals lore. A few miscues later by the usually reliable Ryan Zimmerman and Tyler Clippard, the Braves were back in the game and tied up with the Nationals. But unlike past years, the team displayed a never give up spirit and pinch hitter Willie Harris knocked home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to pick up their starter, who had pitched so brilliantly on that night.
And so last night was redemption for Scott Olsen, who showed that he still has what it takes to pitch in this league. For Jim Bowden, who despite his numerous failures as a GM, traded a light hitting infielder and a few no-name prospects for the lefty. For Mike Rizzo, who made the tough decision to keep the kid on the roster despite all the indications that his career was headed in a downward spiral. For the Nationals, who have not had many respectable pitchers in their brief tenure in the District. And finally, for Nationals fans, who have finally started to get excited about a team that has provided so much heartache over the years. Curtains down, exit stage left.