By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
SAN DIEGO, April 30 -- Hours before his Washington Nationals began a 10-day, nine-game road trip, Manager Manny Acta could tick off his club's deficiencies in a therapeutic monotone. "First in walks. First in errors. Last in runs scored. First in runs allowed."
Yet in almost the same breath, he had a succinct message.
"It's going to get better," Acta said, "because these guys are better than that."
Monday night, they still had their flaws. But the main guy who needs to be better -- would-be No. 1 starter John Patterson -- was just that, picking up his first win of the year by beating San Diego ace Jake Peavy, 3-2, a victory nailed down by struggling closer Chad Cordero.
If there are two players Acta needs to be better to improve the National League's worst record, they are likely Patterson and Cordero. The latter, who had blown three of six save opportunities this season and had never saved a game against the Padres, worked a perfect ninth, though the final out was a warning track fly ball from Oscar Robles.
Still, it was 1-2-3.
"Better than 1-2-3-4-5-6," Cordero joked.
There is little doubt Patterson is better than the pitcher who appeared in his first four starts, when he never pitched more than 5 1/3 innings and posted a 7.71 ERA. Patterson has been adamant that he has to force himself to be patient as he overcomes the aftereffects of elbow surgery last July. He hadn't won a game since April 15, 2006.
Monday night, then, was a significant step. With his fourth pitch, Patterson hit 92 mph. Such a number wouldn't mean much in the middle of the season, but much of Patterson's April was spent discussing the velocity on his fastball, how it related to the bite on his breaking pitches, and how he needed to build arm strength to get it all back. That remained the same, even after Monday.
"I'm not where I want to be," Patterson said. "I'm still focused on that."
In the third, Patterson allowed a two-out, solo homer to Terrmel Sledge -- the outfielder who, just more than two years ago, hit the first home run in Nationals' history. But that was the only scratch Patterson allowed. He got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth, pumping his fist when Khalil Greene hit into a fielder's choice to end it.
"It was better today," Patterson said. "I've been working tremendously hard on my mechanics. I'm just trying to generate some power with my legs, let my arm work, and just take some of the stress off of it. Early in the game, I definitely saw a difference in the life on my fastball and the velocity was a little bit better, which carried over into my breaking balls."
The pitch to Greene was just Patterson's 77th pitch, but it was his last. Kory Casto's RBI double -- which came after Casto failed to get down a sacrifice bunt -- put the Nationals up 3-1 in the seventh. With the opportunity to pour more runs on against Peavy, Acta lifted Patterson for pinch hitter Robert Fick.
"We need to have a few games where we can separate ourselves from the other team," Acta said before the game, and here was the opportunity. But Fick struck out, and by the end of the night, Nationals' pinch hitters were 3 for 44 this season. Felipe Lopez also struck out, his fourth of the night against Peavy, and the Nationals failed to pile on any runs when Ronnie Belliard flew to center.
It was just the latest reminder that the better days for this team, at least in the eyes of management, are in the future. As April drew to a close, team president Stan Kasten remains steadfast in saying the club's rebuilding efforts are "on target."
But Kasten admits he has an advantage over the players and the coaching staff in bearing the uneven results. He completely and unabashedly believes in the club's plan, which he believes is a reasonable facsimile of the approach he, Manager Bobby Cox and General Manager John Schuerholz took in building the Atlanta Braves in the early 1990s.
"It's easier for me to endure, because I know there are always ups and downs," Kasten said. "It's never a straight line. Now, every loss remains hard, no matter where you are. That's just the way it is. When losses are easy for me, I'll know I've stayed too long."
The players, though, are the ones experiencing every loss up close and personal. Many of those players won't be around when the fruits of the rebuilding effort are borne. Still, several prominent players mention the building process when assessing the season thus far.
"I knew that when I signed on and committed here," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "If I'm going to be one of the guys that Manny wants to be a leader, you have to stay positive. . . . It's attitude. Manny says that a lot. 'Attitude's a choice.' I'm a big believer in that."
Attitude can make the clubhouse a more pleasant place to be, but that does not explain an offense that is almost moribund. Their chief failures have been like that in the seventh against Peavy, with runners in scoring position, when they are hitting .177. No other team in the majors entered play Monday with an average below .211 in such situations.
Yet Monday, they got away with it. Lefty Ray King allowed a solo homer to Josh Bard in the eighth, making it 3-2. But Jon Rauch got the final out of the eighth, and when Cordero closed it out, Acta -- for one night at the end of his first month as a major league manager -- looked prophetic.