Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Scott Olsen said his arm felt good, but he allowed six runs and 12 hits in 4 1/3 innings.
"I thought that was the best he's thrown," the Nationals manager said.
If that was Olsen's best, it wasn't nearly good enough. Six runs and 12 hits over 4 1/3 innings. Two towering home runs on fastballs up in the zone. A fastball that touched 91 mph in the first inning but was consistently 88-89 mph after that.
And then there's this: Olsen faced 25 Tigers batters tonight. He retired only 12 of them.
This is a guy who deserves to make the Opening Day rotation?
"Anything that looks like progress is what we're looking for at this point," Riggleman said.
Progress for Olsen meant a strong first inning against the Tigers, with his fastball at its highest levels of the spring and his offspeed pitches showing some bite for the first time. But it didn't last long, and everything steadily went downhill over the next four innings. Sure, several of those 12 hits were bloop singles or well-placed bunts or sinking liners off an outfielder's glove. But Brandon Inge's solo homer in the fifth came on an 88 mph fastball down the middle. And Gerald Laird's two-run shot minutes later came on an 83 mph sinker that might as well have been placed on a tee by Olsen.
The natural assumption is that Olsen was starting to feel fatigued by the time that fateful fifth inning rolled around. But he insisted that wasn't the case.
"I felt OK in the fifth inning," he said. "I didn't feel like I lost anything. I didn't feel tired or anything like that. I just left stuff up in the zone and they didn't miss it."
Olsen also insists his surgically repaired left shoulder feels "fine," no aches, no pains, no problems.
So here's what the Nationals are left with: A 26-year-old lefty with a diminished fastball, an inability to locate his pitches with consistency and 23 hits allowed in 9 1/3 official Grapefruit League innings.
"I mean, I feel good," he said. "I feel like I'm getting close. If I'm not there already, I feel like I'm getting close."
Time has just about run out for Olsen to earn a spot on the 25-man roster. He's lined up to start again Sunday against the Braves, but by the time his turn comes up again, the club is going to need to have made its decision and inserted its eventual No. 5 starter into that slot. Right now, Craig Stammen (2.89 ERA, eight strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings) looks like the safer bet.
Nationals officials will continue to insist Olsen is making progress and that there's still time for him to make it all the way back by the time camp breaks. But if Olsen hasn't reached his moment of truth yet, he's getting awfully close. He's got to show something -- anything -- soon if he's going to stay in the race.
"I can't tell you what we need to see," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "When the decision's made on everybody, we'll all make it as a group. To me, it doesn't matter how hard you throw. That's a plus. But if you can pitch and get people out, that's the important thing."
That's the problem. Olsen's not throwing hard right now and he's not getting people out. That's not a good combination.