Nats' Ace Not Used to Being the One

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

VIERA, Fla., March 23 -- Never mind, the Washington Nationals say, that John Patterson's pitches sailed in and out, up and down, in the fourth inning Friday afternoon. Forget that he needed 30 pitches to get out of that inning, that he required 72 to get through his four-inning outing, that only 38 of them were for strikes, that he didn't throw his slider at all.

"I'm pleased with where I'm at right now," Patterson said after a 10-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers. "Of course, everybody'd like to be perfect."

There will be more pressure for Patterson to be perfect in the upcoming season than there has been at any point in his 11-year professional career. He is supposed to be the ace of a staff that simply doesn't have one. He will take to the mound in 10 days as the Opening Day starter, an assignment he has not been granted previously. In the clubhouse, where he considers himself a leader by default, "we need him," said catcher Robert Fick.

So given this unusual position for a pitcher with a career record of 17-20, Patterson's every performance will be scrutinized, because if he doesn't perform, who will? Still, even after an outing that looked shaky Friday -- four innings, four hits, three walks, one earned run and two strikeouts -- everyone involved said nothing concerned them.

"He's right on schedule," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Breaking ball was sharp, velocity was there. He'll be ready."

There was concern in some corners of Nationals camp after Patterson's velocity, in his previous two outings against major league competition, hovered at around 88 mph. The worst-case scenario, given that development, was that he was protecting his forearm and elbow, the area in which he had a nerve flare-up that required surgery last season, limiting him to just eight starts. One staff member said he thought Patterson was thus relying too much on his shoulder, which could have put him in more danger of injury.

Friday, though, his velocity was back. His fastball hovered between 91 and 93 mph, which is perhaps just a hair below where he is when he's at his best. Afterward, Patterson said he has "a lot of life in my arm," but admitted he hadn't properly finished his pitches in previous outings.

"The first game of the spring against Baltimore, I was trying to throw it through a brick wall," he said. "Just excited, and pumped up and happy to be back on the mound. And since then, I've just tried to find that feel, find my groove, find that little spot where everything clicks and works. . . . I haven't really found that sweet spot in my delivery yet. But I'm getting close."

Friday, his only two strikeouts came against the first two hitters he faced, Neifi Perez flailing at a fastball and Timo Perez looking at a curveball. He allowed a windblown double to Chris Shelton in the second, then a windblown homer to Shelton in the fourth, the only run against him.

That's when things appeared to get dicey. Patterson faced seven hitters in the fourth, started only one of them with a strike, went to three-ball counts on four of them, walked two and, by his own admission, was "fighting myself."

The reason: "I ran out of gas a little bit," he said.

With just one start to go between now and Opening Day -- next Wednesday against Baltimore -- is running out of gas after 72 pitches a concern?

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