- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The ball came screaming off Carlos Beltran’s bat, headed straight for Tomo Ohka’s right forearm, and there was nothing he could do but brace for impact.

It struck him just below the wrist at such a high velocity it left an imprint of the Major League Baseball insignia behind.

No one would have forgiven Ohka had he crumpled to the ground in a heap at that moment, but the Montreal Expos right-hander had other ideas. He somehow managed to locate the wayward baseball, grab it and toss it underhand to first base with his now-broken arm.

“And he almost got the guy,” catcher Brian Schneider recalled of that June 10 game at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. “It was bang-bang.”

Ohka’s immediate reaction to what for all he knew was a career-threatening injury reveals plenty about this pitcher’s level of determination. So does his staggering return to a major-league mound three months later, a titanium plate embedded underneath a six-inch long scar on his throwing arm.

“No way,” Schneider said when asked whether he thought Ohka would come back to pitch before the end of the season. “I don’t know how he did it. The guy has a huge heart.”

Fast-forward another five months and Ohka’s fractured radius might well be an afterthought if not for the still-visible scar. Ohka believes he has recovered completely, and the Washington Nationals have all but assured him a spot in their starting rotation.

It’s easy to overlook this unassuming 28-year-old pitcher. He’s even overlooked in his native Japan, where every player who comes to America is followed by a trail of cameras and reporters.

But if Ohka pitches the way he did before he took that line drive off the arm, he won’t remain anonymous for long.

“When he gets on a roll, he’s a very good pitcher,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “It seems like he was starting to get it going [before getting hurt]. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done without the injury.”

Though his 3-7 record doesn’t indicate it, Ohka had a solid final season in Montreal. In 15 starts, he posted a stellar 3.40 ERA, helping lower his four-year career ERA to a more-than-respectable 3.92. At the time of his injury, he had gone seven straight starts without a loss, and at no time last year did he allow more than four earned runs in a game.

Numbers are all well and good, but what separates Ohka from the rest of the pack are his work ethic and commitment to his teammates.

That may explain why he was so determined to pitch again in September instead of waiting to make his return this spring.

“I know they wanted me to take my time, but I didn’t have pain,” Ohka said. “So I said, ‘I can throw. I can pitch.’ If I didn’t come back, it would have been nine months before the next season. It would have been too long. I didn’t want to get rusty.”

Ohka’s performances in three post-injury starts (0-2, 5.54 ERA) were hardly spectacular. But without them, he might have spent all winter wondering whether he ever truly would be able to come back.

“I think he probably came back too quick,” Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “But you know, I think it kind of gave him peace of mind, that he was going to be OK. He’s a very dedicated guy with extremely good work habits. His program is very regimented. I think he just wanted to prove to himself that he could do it.”

Ohka has been proving people wrong his entire baseball life. Hardly a star back in Japan — he made 34 sporadic appearances for the Yokohama BayStars from 1994 to 1998 — he signed with the Boston Red Sox and spent three seasons bouncing back and forth between Fenway Park and Pawtucket.

The Expos acquired him at the trade deadline in 2001 for closer Ugueth Urbina, and he spent the last 31/2 seasons in virtual anonymity north of the border.

Ohka does draw some attention back in Japan. He doesn’t have a 50-man media horde following him every day like Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui, but a steady stream of reporters has come through Viera the last two weeks to talk to him, and they usually turn out in big numbers for each of his starts.

“It’s not as much as Ichiro or Hideki, because he wasn’t a major leaguer in Japan,” said Katsushi Nagao, who is writing a story about Ohka for Japan’s “Monthly Major League” magazine. “It’s unfortunate. They should follow him more.”

Ohka doesn’t seek the spotlight — “I’m not big in Japan,” he said. He has worked hard to learn English, but he’s still limited to short, one-sentence answers when talking with American reporters.

He also has managed to learn enough baseball-speak to get by with Schneider, Robinson, St. Claire and any other Nationals who need to speak to him. Kazu Tomooka, the club’s strength and conditioning coach, serves as a translator when needed.

“If there’s something really important, you need to have someone to translate it,” St. Claire said. “Because they’ll go like this [nodding head and smiling], like they’ve got it, but they don’t. So when it’s something really important, we try to get Kazu involved to make sure nothing gets lost in translation.”

Language barrier or not, the Nationals have no trouble understanding Ohka’s desire to continue the career progression he had going before he was sidetracked by Beltran’s line drive.

Like Ohka himself, the club is convinced he will return to top form.

“I really don’t have any doubts that he won’t,” St. Claire said. “I feel really strongly about that. Just knowing him, he’s such a determined guy. He’ll be fine.”

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