By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 14 -- John Patterson's bright red baseball glove has always had the U.S. flag stitched on one side, the flag of his home state of Texas proudly stitched on the other, the pair flanking a script version of his name. But Wednesday, when Patterson pulled a brand new piece of leather from his locker at Space Coast Stadium, a different moniker was boldly sewn in block letters running between the two banners: NASTY.
It has been Patterson's nickname since childhood, and it is what he can be, a dominating presence on the mound complete with a four-pitch arsenal and a disarming glare. This season, more than ever, it is what the Washington Nationals need him to be, for they have no one else with his array of pitches and sheer talent, a 29-year-old man approaching what should be the prime of his career.
But in some ways, baseball has been nasty to Patterson, too, and it is a pattern that must end if that most loaded word in sports -- potential -- is to be realized. In a career that began a decade ago, he has suffered injuries of all varieties, from the mundane (groin strains, back spasms) to the catastrophic (ligament replacement surgery in his elbow) to those involving body parts previously unheard of (the lacertus fibrosis).
So to be truly nasty, all that must be gone, and his ability must appear on Opening Day, when he is expected to be the starter. And then five days later, it must appear again. And then five days after that, and five days after that, and so on.
"Thirty starts, 200 innings," Patterson said Wednesday, a simple statement of his goals for the upcoming season. "Everything else will take care of itself."
For a veteran workhorse, such numbers might seem commonplace. For Patterson, they are almost otherworldly. Since he first played pro ball in 1997, he has only once made as many as 30 starts. That came in 2005, when he threw more innings -- 198 1/3 -- than he had at any stop in his major or minor league career.
Give him those 30 starts, let him throw those 200 innings, and Patterson has no doubt the other numbers -- an ERA lower than 3.00, nearly a strikeout per inning, perhaps 15 victories -- will follow. No one in the organization seems to dispute that. What the Nationals need from Patterson is more basic.
"For me," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, "he needs to be healthy."
"If he's healthy," Manager Manny Acta said, "I think everything else will fall in place."
He can be nasty, but only if he's healthy, but if he's healthy, he'll likely be nasty. He is coming off a 2006 season in which he made just eight starts and went 1-2, all because of a strain in his right forearm that turned into a bizarre nerve problem in his elbow, one that had to be repaired surgically. He was asked, then, if he needs to prove he can be durable.
"There's never a season that you go into where you don't have to prove something," Patterson said. "I don't care if you're Chris Carpenter, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, whatever. [Arizona's] Brandon Webb won the Cy Young last year. You think he doesn't have something he's taking into this year that he has to prove? . . . You're always having to prove something."
Thursday morning, when Nationals' pitchers and catchers take the field for the first workout of spring, Patterson will begin the long process of proving himself again. Monday afternoon, in a conference room in Phoenix, he had the unpleasant experience of trying to prove his worth, all while his employer argued against him. The Nationals beat Patterson in his arbitration hearing in front of a three-member panel, a decision that essentially cost the pitcher $1 million (he had asked for $1.85 million but will make $850,000).
"It is hard," Patterson said. "It's not something that you want to go through. . . . But I was kind of put in a spot where I wasn't giving anything up to go and do it."
Yet it is a delicate process, particularly with a pitcher who is constantly aware of his surroundings. Because of that, General Manager Jim Bowden said the club tried to be respectful of Patterson even as it picked apart his accomplishments.
"To their credit," Patterson said, "they didn't get nasty with it."
That word again, the kind associated with a team's ace. Patterson was peppered with questions Wednesday about whether he will be able to lead a staff of unknowns. Essentially, the crux of the questioning was simple: Can you be an ace?
"That's a tough word to drop on John, as an ace," Acta said. "John is just the only guy who has a spot in our rotation because of his potential, what he's done before. But you drop that name on guys who have won 20 games and have won Cy Youngs and stuff like that."
Patterson has just 17 wins in the majors. His best season -- that 9-7 campaign of 2005, when he posted a 3.13 ERA -- was marred by a lack of run support and a major-league high 15 no-decisions. No other team in the majors has a rotation in which its only established member has never won 10 games in a major league season.
"To really prove himself, he has to pitch," St. Claire said. "He has to take the ball. It's that simple."
And it is his intention.
"I mean, I am excited," Patterson said. "This is an opportunity that everybody looks for, whether it's -- ," and he paused to chuckle, "a team that only has one starter or not. It's still the opportunity to pitch on Opening Day and be the head of a staff. I have the ability to do it. If I stay healthy, there's no question in my mind what it'll end up as at the end of the year."
In his mind, it'll end up with a bevy of wins in his pocket, with the National League abuzz about his stuff, with batter after batter walking back to the dugout muttering, "Man, he was nasty."