Patterson Doomed By Nats' Defense

Nationals reliever Ryan Wagner looks back after tagging out the Phillies' Shane Victorino, who tried to score on a wild pitch in the sixth inning of Washington's fourth consecutive loss.
Nationals reliever Ryan Wagner looks back after tagging out the Phillies' Shane Victorino, who tried to score on a wild pitch in the sixth inning of Washington's fourth consecutive loss. (By Tom Mihalek -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, April 25 -- One ball sailed to left field, where Robert Fick might have caught it but didn't. The next hitter, predictably, followed with a home run, and an inning from which John Patterson might have escaped cost him two runs. Another ball went just off the glove of shortstop Felipe Lopez, another was just out of the reach of first baseman Dmitri Young, still another was outright dropped by second baseman Ronnie Belliard.

Yet by the end of a soggy Wednesday night, none of those near-misses or might-have-beens showed up in the black-and-white box score of the Washington Nationals' 9-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. The numbers next to Patterson's name are stark: six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, a record of 0-4, an ERA of 7.71.

"Overall," Patterson said, "it was better than it has been."

That is the reality of the Nationals' would-be No. 1 starter, who is trying to rediscover himself without the arrows he normally has in his quiver. He is a V-8 engine running on perhaps five cylinders, and even on a night when he maintained his velocity into the sixth inning, his fastball still hovered around 88 mph, he still didn't have enough of the feel on his curveball to drop a hard one when he needed to, and his defense didn't help him one bit.

"They got a couple runs that they probably shouldn't have," catcher Brian Schneider said, "and it kind of snowballed."

The Phillies' most dynamic hitters -- second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard -- used their chances against Patterson to shake off slow starts. Utley went 5 for 5 with three RBI, Howard hit the home run that followed Fick's poor route to an Utley fly ball. All of those were key elements in the Nationals' fourth straight loss, the Phillies' fifth straight win.

But put the Phillies' third and fourth hitters -- who Nationals Manager Manny Acta called "scary" -- aside for a minute. Get past even Patterson's well-documented recovery from elbow surgery last July. No single problem has dogged the Nationals through the season's first month more than the inability to come to the plate with a runner on second and deliver a base hit.

"It's been bad," right fielder Austin Kearns said.

Wednesday, the Nationals went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position. Their average in such situations: .176, worst in the majors.

"Pitchers have been keeping us in some ballgames, and we're just throwing up two, three, four runs a game," Kearns said. "That's not going to cut it. I think you ask anybody in the lineup, that's probably the most frustrating thing of the season is that we haven't put up the runs that we think we can."

So the topic has been addressed. "Preach, teach, patient," is how Acta described his approach late Wednesday. Hitting coach Mitchell Page believes there's more to it than just physically performing in such situations.

"Some people want to be there, some people don't," Page said. "You got to want to be an RBI guy. That's when you rise to the occasion."

The Phillies have those guys in Utley and Howard, stars who appear to be ready to drive in 100 annually for years to come. As Utley said, "All you can ask for is guys getting on base, then picking each other up."

The Nationals' best chances against Phillies right-hander Jon Lieber -- making his second start since returning to the rotation -- came when Ryan Zimmerman bounced into a double play with nobody out and two on in the fourth, killing the chance for a truly explosive inning.

Zimmerman, though, wasn't -- and isn't -- alone.

"Some guys panic and try to do too much in an RBI situation instead of just taking good, quality at-bats," Page said. "Some guys panic and think they have to do it. They don't bring their 'A' swing up there."

Right now, Patterson longs for his "A" arsenal, and he simply does not have it. He is occasionally trying to reinvent himself between pitches, trying to find his release point, trying to concentrate on one part of his mechanics, trying to rediscover himself.

"You have a good hitter, and so then you go, 'Let me try this, let me try that,' " Patterson said. "You're out there messing with stuff. That's just the way it is."

It is to the point where Patterson, no 93-mph fastball to be found, must divorce himself from the black-and-white numbers that follow his name.

"You pretty much got to throw that stuff out the window," he said. "If I was out there throwing 93, 94, and my curveballs were sharp, and I had four pitches working and I was 0-4 with a kazillion ERA or whatever it is, then you'd have something to scratch your head about. At this point right now, it's just go out there and get better every time, continue to work, and don't quit."

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