- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

A few hours before Mike O’Connor made his major league debut for the Washington Nationals, a top club official cautioned observers not to get too excited if the young left-hander pitched well against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“He’s not one of our top prospects,” the official said, adding that the soft-tossing pitcher probably would never develop into more than a No. 5 starter.

O’Connor might have taken offense to that lack of faith, but it wasn’t the first time someone doubted his potential for success. And it probably won’t be the last.

“It seems like my whole career people have been saying that,” said the 25-year-old, who after seven impressive starts has become a surprise stud in the Nationals’ rotation.

O’Connor, who will carry a 3.00 ERA into his start tomorrow night against the Milwaukee Brewers, has defied the odds his entire baseball-playing life. No one ever expected him to amount to anything while he was pitching at Baltimore’s Mount St. Joseph High School, where future stars Mark Teixeira and Gavin Floyd stole all the attention.

No one at George Washington University foresaw him blossoming into a major leaguer through most of his four years on campus.

And even after he was named the organization’s pitcher of the year last season, few in the Nationals front office believed he would hit it big like this.

“I certainly couldn’t have predicted that at the age of 25, he’d be in the rotation for a major league ballclub,” said Tom Walter, O’Connor’s former coach at GW. “Nobody could have predicted that.”

So how did it happen? How did a baby-faced, 170-pound kid from Ellicott City, Md., with a mid-80s fastball become a fixture in the Nationals’ rotation?

It started back at Mount St. Joe’s, where as a senior in 1998, O’Connor overcame his physical limitations to become the ace of the Gaels’ staff. Still, few paid much attention, not with Teixeira at third base and Floyd dominating hitters on the junior varsity team.

Those two wound up first-round draft picks, and Teixeira’s now an All-Star with the Texas Rangers. And O’Connor?

“He was kind of just a blip on the screen at that time,” said Alex Smith, the Nationals’ Mid-Atlantic scout who ultimately signed him. “He was a thin, lean-boned kid that barely threw 80 mph. I didn’t see anything more than that.”

So O’Connor graduated and moved down to the District to attend GW and pursue a finance degree while pitching for the Colonials. Walter liked O’Connor’s mental makeup and tireless work ethic, but the kid was still “the 10th man on a not-so-great pitching staff. It’s not like we were the Texas Longhorns.”

No, but O’Connor kept proving the doubters wrong. By his senior year, he had become a valued member of GW’s bullpen, posting a 2.06 ERA and nine saves in 29 games. And he did it not on talent, but on guts.

“He’s very competitive,” said Walter, who now coaches at the University of New Orleans. “From the beginning, he wasn’t afraid to pitch in any situation. The first game his senior year, we’re playing at Tulane, and he comes on in the ninth inning with two guys on and strikes the guy out to beat a nationally ranked team. He’s never been a guy to back down from those situations.”

By that point, O’Connor’s fastball was up to a respectable point in the mid-80s, and his curveball and changeup were considered major league worthy. So Smith, who remembered O’Connor from his high school days, came back to watch him pitch again in 2002 and was stunned by his progress.

Smith, seated next to Atlanta Braves scout J.J. Picollo, turned to his counterpart and said, “This guy’s going to be pretty good.”

Mike Toomey, Smith’s cross-checker with the Montreal Expos, concurred, and on their advice, the organization selected O’Connor in the seventh round of that summer’s draft.

Still, the road to the big leagues was slow. O’Connor spent the next four years working his way up through every Class A club in the organization’s farm system: Vermont in 2002, Savannah in 2003, Brevard County in 2004 and Potomac in 2005.

He was converted to a starter in 2004, but got off to a horrible start last season, going 1-7, “with an ERA of … I don’t even know what it was, but it wasn’t good,” O’Connor recalled.

After fine-tuning his curveball, O’Connor finally started turning things around. By last season’s end, he was 10-11 with a 3.54 ERA, and in an organization with few notable pitching prospects, he was named minor league pitcher of the year.

That honor earned him a trip to RFK Stadium in September to meet the big league club. Little did O’Connor know, as he walked around the clubhouse shaking hands with all the Nationals, but that room would become his home eight months later.

“I’ll be honest,” he said, “I really didn’t think I’d be here this year.”

O’Connor has more than arrived, he’s thriving. Promoted from Class AAA New Orleans after only four starts because the Nationals were facing a pitching emergency, he looked poised during his five-inning debut in St. Louis, then earned him first career win five nights later in New York against the Mets.

Along the way, he has earned the respect of those same club officials who only five weeks ago doubted he would ever make it in the majors.

“Michael O’Connor shows what happens when you bring new, young blood up,” general manager Jim Bowden said.

Added manager Frank Robinson: “O’Connor has what I think it takes to be successful.”

Not bad for a 170-pound kid who had to work every step of the way to make his big league dream come true.

“He’s battled through every obstacle that you could and made it to the show,” Smith said. “That’s a great credit to him. He persevered.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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