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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?

"The next start, we'll take him to 85-90," Manager Manny Acta said, "so the next one [Opening Day] he'll be 95-100. He'll be fine. I liked the way he threw the ball today. He looked loose today, and free."

Patterson, though, understands that he needs to have a breakthrough season to fully be free of his reputation as a pitcher who has, to this point, shown more potential than performance. The season that is considered his breakout year, 2005, he went 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA. This year, he insists he wants more than that, beginning with 30 starts and 200 innings -- the latter a total he has never reached as a professional.

"He's got to win," Fick said. "He's got to keep us in the game. He's got to pitch deep into games. He has to set the tone. He's the old guy on the staff."

As Fick said that, he couldn't hold back a chuckle, a reflection of what the rest of the Nationals' rotation will look like. Patterson is 29, in what should be the years in which he still is physically capable of dominating hitters yet understands what it takes to get them out as well.

But as his ability to win baseball games evolves, Patterson believes his position on the team is evolving, too. Friday, before his start, Patterson stood in the center of the clubhouse, the team's representative to the players' union. Donald Fehr, the union chief, and other executives were on hand. It was Patterson's first time at the helm of a preseason meeting since he replaced catcher Brian Schneider midway through last season.

"I think it makes you a leader, and it makes you want to be a leader," Patterson said. "Guys have questions or concerns, they come to you to get the answer, to point them in the right direction. . . .

"I feel like I have some things to offer, some experience in different situations. This is my 11th spring training. I've seen some things. I feel like I've learned. Maybe I can help some people."

In the next two weeks, the Nationals will begin to find out how much, in 2007, John Patterson can help himself -- and how much that will, in turn, help the team.

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