- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MIAMI | Among the developments that would have been least expected by anyone who stepped into Land Shark Stadium on Monday night was a pitching gem from Scott Olsen.

So the left-hander’s seven spectacular innings in his return from a shoulder injury were among the most encouraging things the Washington Nationals have seen all year.

“You couldn’t ask for anything better,” manager Manny Acta said.

Well, except for a victory. Another bullpen meltdown resulted in a 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins and made Olsen’s performance moot, closing what should have been an uplifting evening on a decidedly sour note.

A nip-and-tuck pitchers’ duel between long-time friends Olsen and Ricky Nolasco - combined, they struck out 15 without walking a single batter - was decided by the bullpens. And Nationals fans know how that usually turns out.

Ron Villone and Julian Tavarez combined to allow two doubles, two sacrifices and three walks, resulting in two runs that decided the ballgame and sent Washington to its eighth straight loss against Florida.

Villone (3-5) came on to pitch the eighth and immediately got into trouble, serving up a double down the right-field line to Wes Helms, then allowing him to score after back-to-back sacrifices.

It was only the latest ragged relief performance for Villone, who after posting a 0.00 ERA through his first 19 appearances this season has been scored upon in six of his past 10 outings. He has been charged with the loss in five of those games.

“It’s a game of inches,” the veteran lefty said. “I missed by several inches a couple times, and I missed by several feet a couple times. There’s no excuse for it.”

All that spoiled Olsen’s triumphant return to the rotation. Though he hadn’t pitched in six weeks, he arrived at the park knowing it was important to make a strong statement. He was anything but effective in eight starts before succumbing to shoulder tendinitis, going 1-4 with a 7.24 ERA.

In the ensuing weeks, a group of promising rookie starters emerged, so much so that Olsen (who entered the season as the No. 2 starter) didn’t seem as important a piece to the long-term puzzle as he once did.

“You can’t sit there and go, ‘Well, if I don’t pitch well today they’re going to bring somebody up.’ You can’t think like that,” Olsen said. “I just knew for myself I had to go out and pitch better than I had.”

If Monday’s performance was an indication of things to come, Olsen will figure into the Nationals’ plan. Aside from a brief hiccup in the third inning when he allowed two runs on four hits, Olsen was effective and efficient. He retired 12 in a row at one point - six via strikeout - and kept his pitch count to a minimum.

Equally as important to the Nationals’ coaching staff, Olsen flashed a livelier fastball than he did pre-injury. Thanks to some new shoulder-strengthening exercises, he’s now consistently hitting 90 mph with his four-seamer, up several notches from earlier in the season.

“I’m not Jamie Moyer,” Olsen said. “I can’t really be hugely successful throwing 82-83 [mph]. I need to be up around 90 to have success. The exercises and the new routines that the training staff and the physical therapists have got me on here have paid dividends.”

One of Olsen’s best friends from his days with the Marlins was Nolasco, and the two shared a ride to the ballpark Monday. Then the two went out and dueled pitch for pitch.

The Nationals appeared to be on Nolasco early, getting a towering homer from Ryan Zimmerman to lead off the second and then a 420-foot double from Josh Willingham that would have been a homer had he hit the ball anywhere other than deep center field in this large stadium. Willingham eventually came around to score on Wil Nieves’ infield single.

But in a scene all too reminiscent for Nationals fans this season, one big early inning did not lead to more big innings. Washington’s bats went silent, producing all of one single over the next six innings, preventing Olsen from a much-deserved victory and leaving this game in the hands of a bullpen that now owns a 7-25 record.

“Our bullpen, it is what it is,” Acta said. “We have struggled for the most part this year. So we’ve got to take the positives out of it. And it was that [Olsen] hasn’t pitched well for us. He came back from a rehab assignment and threw the ball very well against a good team.”

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