By David Driver
A nice breeze blows through Nationals Park on a pleasant Friday evening, without a trace of the humidity that is the scorn of July evenings in the nation’s capital.
As fans file into their seats in the upper deck, Ross Ohlendorf ’05 takes his warm-up pitches before the start of the first inning, employing the old-fashioned windup that has become his calling card.
With his favorite country song (“Barefoot Blue Jean Night” by Jake Owen) blaring on the stadium loudspeakers, the Austin, Texas, native prepares to face the New York Mets in just his second start of the season for the Washington Nationals.
An afterthought in spring training for a team apparently deep in pitching, Ohlendorf, 30, has emerged as one of the more reliable hurlers this season for the Nationals, who entertained World Series ambitions as they gathered at Space Coast Stadium in Florida for spring training.
After bailing out the team’s starters with some long stints out of the bullpen, the well-travelled veteran right-hander made his first start before the home fans July 26, and he turned in a stellar performance as he allowed just one run in seven innings to the pesky Mets.
“I certainly feel good about what I’ve done when I’ve gotten to start. I’ve been really happy with how I’ve been pitching. I just need to keep it going,” he said, standing by his locker after the game.
Ohlendorf did not figure in the decision but the Nationals won 2-1 on a walk-off home run by All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the last of the ninth as the former Tiger lowered his ERA to a tidy 1.87 in a spot start.
"Exceptional. He pitched his heart out," Washington manager Davey Johnson said of Ohlendorf.
A former starter for the Yankees, Pirates, and Padres, Ohlendorf was signed by the Nationals prior to the 2013 season as a minor-league free agent. The Nationals returned a trio of all-star caliber-starters, and Ohlendorf was low on the team’s depth chart. He began the year in the minors.
“I knew [coming into the year] that I’d felt a lot better than I’ve felt in awhile,” he said. “I don’t know if I expected to do as well as I have. But the season is not over yet. I have been really happy with how it’s gone.”
Ohlendorf could join the Nationals’ starting rotation as lefty Ross Detwiler has back issues and rookie Taylor Jordan will be shut down due to an innings limit, just like teammate Stephen Strasburg was last year.
In Washington, Ohlendorf has been getting a lot of good press, but he hasn’t taken notice. He told PAW that about five years ago he stopped reading the paper or listening to radio or TV about his performance as a way to focus on the task at hand.
Freelance writer David Driver covers the Nationals for The Sports Xchange, a national content provider for Yahoo Sports and others, and has contributed to Baseball America and milb.com.