DENVER — Early Wednesday evening, as smoke from a nearby wildfire invaded Coors Field and ash flew around like pollen, nervous energy coursed through Ross Ohlendorf. Two hundred and 98 days had passed since the Washington Nationals’ right-hander last stood on a major league mound.
He chatted with manager Davey Johnson and told him he was excited to be here; excited to have been asked to help the team. “I’m really excited you’re here,” Johnson told him, hoping he’d see a performance not unlike the past three he’d had in Triple-A.
Then Ohlendorf took the mound, bringing his old-school windup and the drive to prove that he still belonged at this level. In the Nationals’ 5-1 victory he did what many have been unable to: held down the Colorado Rockies offense.
“That’s the outing we’ve been needing all year long,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who led the Nationals’ offensive charge as he continued a torrid stretch at the plate and his 14-game hitting streak charged on. “To hold the Rockies at home, all their guys are hot. He did an unbelievable job. Hats off to him.”
In the scheme of a long season, what Ohlendorf did was lead the Nationals to one victory. He helped them climb back to the .500 mark for the 11th time this season and knock off a game from the Atlanta Braves’ lead.
But there also seemed to be a subtext to his start. His future here is unknown. When he landed in Denver on Tuesday night, Ohlendorf — who’d been scheduled for a call up on Saturday before rain washed away the need for it — figured it was OK to believe this time he would actually pitch. How long he’d stay was another matter.
“You can almost at times take (being in the big leagues) for granted,” said Ohlendorf, who signed a minor league deal with the Nationals this offseason despite having spent parts of the last six years in the big leagues.
“And then going to the minors, you certainly don’t. I feel like through injuries and things, I’m really happy with the way I’ve rebounded and come back. I feel like I’ve really pitched well this year, and it’s nice to have gotten an opportunity to pitch here.”
Ohlendorf allowed the Rockies only two hits. A bunt single in the first inning, and an RBI-triple into left center field in the sixth. He put two runners on with walks, but neither wound up hurting him. His biggest threat, on Carlos Gonzalez’s triple in the sixth, was made moot when he got Troy Tulowitzki to fly to deep center and end in the inning moments later.
For six innings, and with several pitches seemingly over the middle of the plate, he sent the majority of the highest-slugging team in the National League back to the dugout shaking their heads.
“He had good movement,” Johnson said. “An easy curveball and slider and he used both sides of the plate. I liked his wind-up, too. Reminded me of an old-fashioned wind-up.”
He’s used a variation of the exaggerated wind-up he’s employing now in the past, on the suggestion of former pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, but this is the first year he’s broken his hands before delivering a pitch. The movement helps give him rhythm, he said, and it felt comfortable from the moment he first tried using it this spring. He worried he may tip his pitches, but so far, so good.
Good enough, even, for it to possibly affect how long he stays.
“It was an outstanding effort,” Johnson said. “And I’m looking forward to seeing more of him… I want to try to find a way to keep him around.”
How the Nationals could do so, however, was left as a question for another day. For now, Johnson was simply happy to have seen the performance he did. Happy that Ohlendorf did not crumble in the sixth, left with a lead and saved him from having to use valuable long man Craig Stammen out of the bullpen.
The Nationals gave him a lead in the fourth, when Desmond drove in Ryan Zimmerman for his first RBI of the night. And they expanded it with a three-run sixth in wihich six batters reached base, two came home on another single by Desmond, and Zimmerman drove in the other.
Anthony Rendon added an RBI-double, his fourth double in six games since his promotion last week, in the eighth and Rafael Soriano closed things out with his third appearance this month.
Ohlendorf’s new teammates doused him with Gatorade as he did an on-field interview after the game. And he could hardly keep the smile from his face as he fielded questions about his performance.
“I was really excited about this start,” Ohlendorf said. “I’m glad it went well.”
“I talked to him before the game and he was nervous a little bit,” said catcher Jhonatan Solano, who caught him twice in Triple-A this season. “I told him, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. Try to be you. Don’t try to do too much because it’s not going to work. Just pitch. Do what you want to do and trust in your pitches. We’ll see what happens.’ He got a good result today.”