Not Just an Intra-Squad Game for Young Pitcher

<b>VERO BEACH, Florida</b>-- For most it was just another intra-squad game among Dodger minor leaguers. But for one player, the March 19 contest was a date to be circled on a calender the way you do an anniversary or an important birthday. For Jason Olson, it was the day he returned to the mound.

It had been almost three years since Olson had thrown a pitch in competition. Three years, three elbow operations, endless hours of rehabilitation, countless nights of wondering if the time would ever happen.

Rehabbing is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. Olson admits there were "a few times when I wondered if I would ever be right again. But I tried not to keep thoughts like that in my mind."

At last, after all the inching forward only to be pushed back, then going forward again, he was there, facing hitters. Fellow Dodgers, true, but not inclined to take it easy on him. After all, they wanted to look good every bit as much as he did.

If it were a time of trial, it was a time of triumph for the pitcher they all call "Oley". In this case, as often happens in camp games, the rules were suspended to achieve a purpose. So, he was to get six outs instead of three.

Whcih is exactly what he did. Throwing freely and easily, he dispatched of all six -- a grounder to second, a pop-up on the first pitch, a grounder to short, a swinging strikeout, another pop-up and another swing and miss at strike three. His fellow pitchers watching from the stands behind home plate at Field Two applauded and cheered.

"It was May 14, 2002 when I last pitched," he was saying later." To be honest, this is the best I've felt in a long time." To achieve this, he had used," mostly fast balls, my two-seamer and four-seamer. I mixed in a slider and threw changeups.

Olson is a native of Arizona who played collegiate ball across the country at Armstrong Atlantic State in Savannah, Ga. There he was discovered by Dodger scout Lon Joyce and was drafted in the 17th round in June 2000.

His first season wasn't anything special record-wise -- 0-1, 4.34 at Yakima in the Northwest League but he showed the kind of arm he possesses with 43 strikeouts in 37 innings. He improved in 2001, going 2-0, 1.17 for Great Falls to move up to Wilmington where he was 2-4, 3.68. He was off the a splendid start at Vero Beach in 2002, going 1-0, 2.66 before finally having to go to the sidelines after 10 games.

His stay in Vero after that was in the rehab facilties located there, so much so that he virtually became the poster boy for the disabled list. But he never quit and now he's back in action.

His camp game performance impressed organizational pitching coordinator Rick Honeycutt, who was on hand to follow every pitch. "He was good, very good," he noted.

Now, Olson will work in exhibition games, gradually lengthening his stay on the mound. He'd like to open the season at Vero, then show enough to move up to Jacksonville. Which makes him one of a horde of pitchers who have expressed that wish.

For him, though, it's time to make up for lost ground. He's 26 now so moving forward at a rapid pace would seem to be in order. For now, though, just getting out there and commanding the strike zone is a long leap back from the brinki of oblivion.