Tuesday, March 7, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Before the Washington Nationals signed Ramon Ortiz to a one-year, $2.5 million deal during the offseason, general manager Jim Bowden asked Jose Rijo to provide a scouting report.

The first pitch Ortiz threw for the general manager’s special assistant was 96 mph.

“I said, ‘Hey Jim, we got a sleeper here,’” Rijo said. “So if we can teach him how to pitch, I think we’ve got something going here.”

So pitching coach Randy St. Claire and Rijo visited the right-hander in his native Dominican Republic to work on his slider.

“His slider was flat, and he held it from the top part of the ball with no grip,” said Rijo, whose out pitch during his playing days was a slider. “So we’ve been working in the offseason trying to get him to grip the seam on the top, and we hope it slides a little more. It’s working out much better. He feels more comfortable. The only thing now that he needs to work on is his mechanics. His delivery slows down a little when he throws it.”

Ortiz went 9-11 with a 5.36 ERA last season with the Cincinnati Reds. In his first National League season, Ortiz gave up 34 home runs. St. Claire and Rijo are convinced Ortiz can reach double figures in wins this season if he can throw his slider for strikes.

“He has such a quick delivery, a quick arm, and I think his delivery was very slow and methodical over there [Cincinnati] last year,” St. Claire said. “So that’s one of things we wanted to do, get him back to him, being him. That’s the way he likes to be. He needs to execute his slider with some good tilt.”

Bowden almost traded for Ortiz during last season’s playoff run, but someone above former Reds general manager Dan O’Brien killed the deal at the last minute. Ortiz pitched well against the Nationals in a loss Aug. 24 at RFK Stadium, allowing two runs on six hits in six innings.

Ortiz, 68-60 with a 4.72 ERA in seven seasons, became critical to the success of the Nationals’ rotation after the season-ending shoulder injury to Brian Lawrence. In his first appearance this spring against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday, Ortiz labored a bit, throwing 50 pitches in three innings but allowing just one run. In his 27-pitch second inning, he loaded the bases on three walks. Ortiz said he was working on his slider.

“It’s a pitch I have to work on in spring training,” he said. “And I want to do it every day.”

St. Claire wasn’t overly concerned about Ortiz’s pitch count because he has such a strong arm. Listed at 6-foot and 175 pounds, Ortiz throws deceptively hard for a man of his size.

“I like his arm. His arm is very lively,” manager Frank Robinson said. “You don’t have to be big to throw hard.”

Ortiz, who is scheduled to start today against the Florida Marlins, is best remembered for his years with the Angels. He went 15-9 with a 3.77 ERA in 2002, including 6-0 his final nine starts to help the Angels hold off the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners in the wild-card chase as Anaheim claimed its first World Series.

Today against the Marlins, Ortiz expects to throw about 60 pitches and work four or five innings. Ortiz said he throws his slider like his fastball but is happy with his entire arsenal.

“I don’t see anything wrong right now,” Ortiz said. “Everything is fine. My changeup is good, my fastball is good, my slider … I’m working on that pitch. Every pitch is good.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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