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03/12/08 7:10 PM ET

O'Connor showing he's healthy

Lefty stays in Nationals' rotation race with five hitless innings

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Nationals left-hander Mike O'Connor continues to show he has recovered from his elbow surgery. On Wednesday afternoon, he pitched five hitless innings and gave up one earned run in a 10-4 victory over the Dodgers.

O'Connor became the first member of the Nationals to go five innings this spring. He was slated to go only four frames, but he was able to go the extra inning because he was below his pitch count. He ended up throwing 66 pitches in the game.

The only time O'Connor was in trouble was in the first inning. He walked the first two hitters he faced -- Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal -- and they both ended up scoring.

After walking Pierre and Furcal, O'Connor retired 14 out of the next 15 hitters he faced. The best pitch of the day came in the fifth inning, when he struck out catcher Russell Martin looking on a curveball.

"O'Connor was able to do the job with only two pitches. We didn't see his good changeup throughout the game," manager Manny Acta said. "I'm confident that he is back to where he was two years ago."

In 2006, O'Connor was called up to the big leagues on April 27 and remained in the Nationals' rotation until July 29. He went on the disabled list the next day because of elbow problems. He returned to the big leagues on Sept. 6, sporting a 3.48 ERA for the month.

But by the end of the 2007 season, O'Connor wasn't on the team's radar screen and was taken off the 40-man roster. After elbow surgery in November '06, O'Connor missed the first two months of the '07 campaign because he was still rehabbing the elbow. He returned to action in June and was hit hard. In 15 starts, he was 3-7 with a 7.07 ERA for Double-A Harrisburg.

Despite the numbers, O'Connor was given an invite to Spring Training this year and has responded, giving up just two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings.

O'Connor said he's helped by the fact he is feeling more relaxed than he did when he made his Major League debut.

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"I'm not trying to do too much. I try not to think about last year at this point. I try to just go out there and pitch and get ready for the season," O'Connor said. "I feel like my velocity is better than last year. Last year, I was not getting swings and misses on fastballs in Double-A. I feel I have better life on the ball than I had in the past."

According to pitching coach Randy St. Claire, O'Connor has also improved his pitching mechanics. He has straightened up his stride on the mound, and it's rare that one sees O'Connor's pitches high in the strike zone.

"I think his command is better," St. Claire said. "His delivery is better. He has worked his tail off on his delivery."

If O'Connor continues to pitch effectively, the Nationals may have to consider putting him on the 25-man roster to start the season.

"He's still in the rotation," St. Claire said. "Until he is out of the rotation and down in [Minor League camp], we are going to be rethinking [about O'Connor's status]. We are going to be watching him."

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