Ohlendorf convinced he's a better pitcher now

Ohlendorf convinced he's a better pitcher now

PITTSBURGH -- He will end the season with 11 losses, one lone victory and the memory of being struck in the side of the head by a line drive, not to mention the effects of two other injuries having kept him from taking the mound regularly.

On the surface, 2010 was a season in which everything went wrong. And yet, Ross Ohlendorf finds a silver lining.

Actually, he finds much more than that.

Among the Pirates' many surprises this season -- most being of the negative variety -- you'll find Ohlendorf listed near the top of the list. One of the standout stories of the second half of '09, Ohlendorf arrived at Spring Training shouldering high expectations.

By no means did anyone expect the right-hander to be among the league's most dominant pitchers, but he was viewed as a legitimate candidate to anchor Pittsburgh's rotation. Considered for the Opening Day start, Ohlendorf settled into the No. 2 spot in the rotation. He was to be a rotation workhouse and a refreshing power arm in a rotation short on power.

But, of course, there are no guarantees in predictions.

A back injury derailed one month. It then took Ohlendorf two more months to really find his groove. Once he did, the run support didn't follow -- thus, the 1-11 record.

Bad luck surfaced in the form of a line drive to the head. And less than four weeks later, a right shoulder injury ended his season.

So what can possibly be gleaned from this season, one that Ohlendorf unhesitatingly defined as the most trying of his professional career?

"It's been the least fun year of my career because of getting hurt twice and only having one win," Ohlendorf said.

And yet...

"I feel like I've gotten a lot better," Ohlendorf continued. "It's been encouraging. I certainly take a lot from that. Going into next year, I feel like I am even better than I was the season before.

Though he's not proud of his record, Ohlendorf doesn't judge his year by that standard. He shouldn't, either, given that the Pirates scored a total of 27 runs while he was on the mound during his 21 starts. Eight different times, the right-hander exited a game with a goose egg on the Pirates' side of the scoreboard.

Hidden in Ohlendorf's final numbers is how well he pitched in his final 11 games. His 2.68 ERA during that span was exceptionally refreshing in a rotation that has had monumental struggles. Opponents hit .228 against him, and in eight of those outings, he allowed two or fewer earned runs.

"That's Ross," manager John Russell said. "We saw the efficient innings. I really think he was looking forward to finishing the year, because some good things were happening for him. I think he put behind the win-loss and just focused on what he wanted to do."

"I felt like I started to hit a stride," Ohlendorf added. "I would have liked to have stayed healthy and pitch better all season, but going into next year, I feel like I am even better than I was the season before."

One reason for that, as Ohlendorf explains, has been the development of his changeup. Statistically, Ohlendorf actually threw more changeups in 2009 (11.7 percent of his pitches) than he did in 2010 (8.7 percent). However, the effectiveness of the pitch wasn't comparable.

The right-hander's success last season hinged primarily on his fastball-slider mix. This year, that changeup played a much bigger role -- so much so that Ohlendorf said he feels that the improvement of the pitch and his growing confidence in using it puts him in a better position at the end of this season than he was in 2009.

"I felt like, in the last two years, I have continually gotten better with the exception of the beginning of the season," Ohlendorf added.

Just as his presence was sorely missed by the club early this season, Ohlendorf will once again be a critical cog in the Pirates' rotation in 2011. That's what makes his end-of-the-season ascent -- absent, of course, the injuries -- so key.

Now, it's all about putting together those second-half numbers for a full year.

The first step in that is getting healthy, and Ohlendorf appears well on his way to that. After resting his shoulder for a little more than three weeks, Ohlendorf resumed throwing on Friday.

The progression will be slow and may or may not include additional side sessions after the regular season ends. To this point, that hasn't been finalized. But from a health standpoint, nothing is expected to hinder Ohlendorf at the start of Spring Training.

As for the rest of Ohlendorf's offseason plans, he hasn't committed to any non-baseball work plans. Last winter, Ohlendorf made national headlines when he accepted an internship with the United States Department of Agriculture.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.