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More than an innings-eater: the Pirate’s RHP Ross Ohlendorf.

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For a couple months, this article has been on the back burner, just simmering there, waiting for me to stir it. I’ve never been confident that the subject at hand is plausible, let alone realistic. But with a little more raking, I’ve come to this conclusion: the Pirate’s have a hidden gem, a piece of their futuristic postseason puzzle, in Ross Ohlendorf.

Crazy, I know.

Key to the Pirate's success?The 6’4″ righty went 11-10 with a 3.92 earned run average in 29 starts and 176.2 innings pitched with the Pirates in 2009. He shared the team lead in wins with lefty Zach Duke and also posted the best ERA and WHIP among the rotation’s starters. And while Ohlendorf never blew the ball by batters, he led Pirate’s starters in K/9 with a 5.55 mark.

For a guy who’d never posted an ERA below 6.00 in the three seasons where he reached double digits in innings pitched, that, folks, is what we call a breakout.

Ohlendorf’s road to Pittsburgh was like so many before him. Once a promising prospect in both the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankee’s organizations, Ohlendorf wore out his welcome in both cities, getting pummeled as a Triple-A starter and posting sub-par numbers as a major league reliever. After being dished to the Yanks as part of the Randy Johnson deal, he was dealt to Pittsburgh in the Xavier Nady/Demaso Marte transaction during the second half of 2008.

As they say, sometimes all you need is a change of scenery. And the move to thankless baseball purgatory has worked well for the 27-year-old Texan.

Ohlendorf has always had the stuff: a 94-97 mile-per-hour fastball with great sink, a mid-80’s slider with good movement, and a fringe change up. In 2007, he added a splitter to his repertoire. During his time with the Diamondbacks, Ohlendorf worked almost exclusively as a starter. He showed dominating ability, but lacked a true changeup, a malady that severely hindered his success. As a reliever with the Yankees, he became more of a power arm that relied on a bowling ball sinker and splitter. Still, inconsistency and control issues earned him a one-way ticket out of town.

Much of Ohlendorf’s success in 2009 can be attributed to a change in his motion. At the urging of Pirate’s pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who worked with Pedro Martinez during his ridiculous run with the Red Sox in 1999-2000, Ohlendorf started pitching from true overhead after the All-Star break. The move gave him much better control of his changeup and added more sink, at the expense of .5 miles-per-hour of velocity, to his fastball.

And the results don’t lie.

Ohlendorf's 2009 splits.

Ohlendorf was shutdown in mid-September after reaching his innings pitched limit. Next year, he should pitch over 200 innings.

The Pirate’s haven’t had a 15-game winner this decade. And while the Pirate’s staff has shown the ability to groom pitchers into one-year studs (Paul Maholm ’08, Tom Gorzelanny ’07, Ian Snell ’06), they’ve yet to sustain a consistent starting rotation, or even a single, stable starting pitcher.

Could Ross Ohlendorf, castoff of the Diamondbacks and Yankees, be that pitcher?

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