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O'Connor feels right at home with Nats

February 06, 2007|by BOB PARASILITI

Mike O'Connor doesn't mind waiting for his chance to pitch for the Washington Nationals.

He's young, patient and he isn't going anywhere ... in the figurative sense.

Remaining stationary isn't an option for a professional baseball player. Road games, trips to the minors, the prospect of being traded and free agency all keep the player from getting too comfortable in one place.

But O'Connor's roots are different. They are planted in Baltimore.

O'Connor is the closest thing the Nationals have to a hometown boy. His family lives in Ellicott City, Md., just 39 miles from Washington. Needless to say, once he reaches the Nationals for good, the team will have a built-in fan club.

"I was an Orioles fan when I was growing up, but I don't think I'm allowed to be anymore," said O'Connor recently when the Nationals, the parent club of the South Atlantic League's Hagerstown Suns, brought their preseason caravan to the Clarion Hotel and Convention Center. "Growing up close by is always good. It's a lot to handle at times, but I enjoy it. When you go to a new team, you have to get used to the area and I wouldn't have to do that."

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O'Connor's family moved to Maryland from Texas when he was young. He loved following Nolan Ryan because of the Texas ties, but became an Orioles fan.

Now, he has a chance of putting a new twist on the idea that "there is no place like home." Once the left-hander, who had surgery in November 2006 to clean out his pitching elbow, is cleared to play, there is a great opportunity for him stick with his adopted hometown team.

The Nationals are basically cleaning house after finishing last in the National League East in 2006. The biggest undertaking of all is the pitching staff.

Only John Patterson is assured of having a job on the starting staff. Manager Manny Acta said 38 pitchers are being invited to this month's training camp, with 12 of those players auditioning for four open starting spots.

O'Connor is in the mix, but he will be a late addition to the staff because of the elbow surgery.

"I'm excited to be with a team with so much change because it gives you a chance," O'Connor said. "For me, the opportunity to compete for a job is great. If they feel that I can do it, I will go out there and compete."

Before playing at George Washington University, O'Connor was on the same Mount St. Joseph team with big-leaguers Mark Teixeira and Gavin Floyd.

He was the Montreal Expos' seventh-round pick in the 2002 draft. He played in the South Atlantic League for Savannah - and in Hagerstown - in the 2003 season, then spent two seasons in high Class A - one with Brevard County in the Florida State League as an Expos farmhand, the next in the Carolina League with Potomac as a Nationals prospect.

O'Connor was named the Nationals minor league player of the year in 2005 after going 10-11 with a 3.54 ERA in 26 starts. He made it to the Nationals in 2006 after six starts with Triple-A New Orleans.

O'Connor started 20 games for Washington, posting a 3-8 record and a 4.80 ERA before being shut down with the elbow problems.

O'Connor will enter spring training gingerly, waiting for the chance to compete for a starting job.

"I will start throwing soon," O'Connor said. "From there, it is hard to say. We'll have to wait and see what the trainers say. I'm going to listen to them. I can't rush it, even though I would like to."

But if past history means anything, being a late bloomer and a hometown boy have to count in his favor somewhere.

"For a young player, this is the best organization to be with," O'Connor said. "How many teams come in saying they have opening for four starters in their rotation? There is a lot happening and a lot of excitement with the new stadium coming and people getting interested in us."

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