By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006
MIAMI, April 15 -- When the ball came off Josh Willingham's bat, Frank Robinson was certain it was headed for center field, that a lead was sure to be frittered away in the bottom of the ninth, because there were men on first and second, and that is the way things have been going for the Washington Nationals. Chad Cordero, who threw the pitch, thought differently, that it was just a soft little liner, one the second baseman, Brendan Harris, could handle easily.
"I didn't realize until I turned around," Cordero said, "that it was going to be a lot harder play than I first thought."
Perhaps it is an indication that nothing, all season long, will come easily for these Nationals. When they needed a play to end a six-game losing streak, they depended on Harris -- who was in the minors two days ago -- to take two quick steps and leap high in the air to snag Willingham's liner, the final out in a harrowing 2-1 victory Saturday night that, if not for such final-play drama, would have belonged solely to John Patterson, who pitched masterfully.
"Maybe this is a good omen," Robinson said. "Maybe it's a good start, to win a close one."
The good start came from Patterson, who owned the Marlins just when the Nationals desperately needed someone to take ownership of the situation. He threw eight brilliant innings, allowing just three hits and one run while matching a career high with 13 strikeouts. It was a near-perfect outing during times that were growing increasingly desperate, one in which the lanky right-hander set down the first 13 men he faced, one in which he relied on his curveball to baffle the young Marlins, who were caught looking seven times.
"It was just one of those days when I had a feeling," Patterson said. "I don't mean that to sound cocky or anything, but I had a good feeling today, and was real relaxed."
For Patterson, the majority of performance is dictated by feel. Last year, when he established himself as a potentially potent major league starter, he would frequently speak after poor starts about how something wasn't right when he woke up in the morning, or about the positive vibes he received when he walked into the ballpark and then dominated hitters. It's something that's hard to grasp, like explaining the fine art of gripping and feeling a curveball, but when he mulled over the concept Saturday night, he came up with a word: visualization.
"I just see myself pitching that ballgame," Patterson said. "That's what I go to bed thinking about. I wake up in the morning, and I've got that feeling, and I go with it. [I] don't fight myself."
He would be well-served not to fight the feeling, whatever it is, that precedes performances such as Saturday's. Six of the first seven hitters he faced marched back to the bench with the bat on their shoulders, strikeout victims. By the end of four, he had eight strikeouts and was pitching a perfect game, though he said that fact never crossed his mind.
Whether it was one of the minions of Marlins few people have ever heard of -- Dan Uggla, anyone? -- or Miguel Cabrera, the slugging third baseman who is one of the best young players in the game, it didn't matter. "When you've got all three pitches working for you," first baseman Mike Jacobs said, "you're probably going to do pretty good."
Jacobs described one of those pitches as Patterson's "Bugs Bunny curve," a slow bender that was particularly effective in the early evening light, when the sun reflected off the hitting background at Dolphin Stadium. It wasn't until Willingham's one-out double in the fifth that the Marlins put a man on base, but when Chris Aguila followed with a double to right, Florida had a 1-0 lead.
Had the Nationals been able to provide any semblance of an offense against Marlins lefty Scott Olsen -- making his first major league start of the year -- this could have been a laugher. Patterson would allow just one more hit.
Yet because nothing comes easily for the Nationals, there was significant work to do. Of all the things they have done poorly in losing nine of their first 12 games, running the bases might be the worst. So even though Olsen and three relievers issued the Nationals 10 walks, they could barely score because they ran into four outs on the base paths. It took the Marlins' own significant bumbling for the Nationals to even get on the board, with Olsen's misplay of a dribbler off the bat of Ryan Zimmerman the key moment in a two-run sixth. And even that rally ended with Harris being gunned down at the plate after Royce Clayton's RBI double.
"We sure didn't run them off the field offensively," Robinson said.
Rather, they managed just five hits. The defense, though, came through. Patterson struck out the first two men he faced in the eighth, and then pinch hitter Wes Helms stroked a ball to left. Soriano, playing just his 12th major league game in the outfield, momentarily lost the ball in the lights and decided to play it off the wall. He would try to gun down Helms at second.
"I still don't throw like an outfielder," he said, but he got the ball to Harris, who applied a quick tag to end the inning -- and Patterson's night.
And so it was up to Cordero, 2005's major league leader in saves who was still looking for his first of 2006. He retired the first two men, but then walked Cabrera and Jacobs on a total of nine pitches.
"My heart started beating a little bit faster," he said. He wasn't alone, particularly when Willingham, the next hitter, tapped his ball toward second. Harris, in the lineup because Jose Vidro had a tight hamstring, timed his leap perfectly.
"That's about as high as I was going to get," Harris said. When he came down with the ball, Cordero pumped his fist twice. "I think I'm going to have to go out and buy him a dinner or something like that," Cordero said.
Finally, after those six losses in a row, the Nationals could share a meal that tasted good.
"This is a big game for everybody," Patterson said. "We needed that."