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'Hop' Gives Patterson Hope of Opening Night Start

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 14 -- It was right around the time the calendar flipped to December, out on a ballfield in far East Texas, when John Patterson reared back and threw -- and saw something that made his heart flutter. The ball took off, toward its target, but instead of merely dropping into the glove of his throwing partner, Patterson could swear to God it accelerated in midflight -- or "hopped" -- just like it used to do, a couple of years and a couple of surgeries ago. And it was right then, and it was right there, that Patterson knew he was back.

"The ball just had a little hop on it," Patterson recalled Thursday, as he sat in the clubhouse of the Washington Nationals' training complex. "And I hadn't seen that in a couple years. . . . When I started seeing that again, I said: 'Here we go. We're going in the right direction.' "

The official reporting day for the Nationals' pitchers and catchers is Friday, with the first workout scheduled for Sunday, but by that time Patterson, the Nationals' de facto ace and presumptive Opening Night starter, will already have been in Viera for a week, having arrived last weekend following a quiet drive across the deep South. Truth is, he couldn't wait for spring training to start, just to see if everyone else could see what he sees when he throws.

"A lot of good things," he said, "are happening for me right now."

Rattle them off: a new wife, a new house, a right arm that doesn't ache or feel heavy anymore, a fastball that hops again. Always an easy read, Patterson's boyish face announces the changes. Gone are the perpetual scowl and the shoulder-length hair that made him look like a brooding teenager as the 2006 and 2007 seasons crawled by, with Patterson barely able to make a contribution to the Nationals' cause.

After going 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 2005 -- looking for all the world like a young pitcher on the verge of greatness -- Patterson made it to the mound only 15 times in 2006 and 2007 combined, as he dealt with confounding nerve-related injuries in his right elbow.

Those two seasons were a blur of medical opinions -- four doctors saw him in June 2007 -- and alternative treatments, including a hyperbaric chamber, homeopathic injections and electrical microcurrents. There were also surgeries in July 2006 and September 2007 in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Patterson's radial nerve.

"There were more opinions on his health," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said, "than for any other player I've ever had."

At its worst, the pain in his arm prevented him from washing his hair or moving the mouse on his computer -- "Everything just inflamed the nerve," he said -- and throwing a baseball effectively was simply out of the question.

Ultimately, it was the second surgery that finally solved the problem -- or at least it now seems that way -- as Patterson found out within a few weeks of beginning his throwing program in November, when the blessed "hop" first showed up again, leaving Patterson to wonder exactly how long it had been since it disappeared.

"The last time where I could say, 'Man, I feel great and I'm healthy,' was in '05," Patterson said. "I just haven't had fun the last couple years. Everything I did was just miserable. . . . But since the [second] surgery, it's just been great. It really has. I had a great offseason and my throwing got better and better, all the strength came back in my arm and my hand."

Nationals fans may recall that Patterson also declared himself healthy a year ago at this time, but lasted only until the first week of May before going on the disabled list, not to be seen on a big league mound again. The problem, Patterson said, is that he had forgotten what it felt like to be truly healthy, and he mistakenly equated being pain-free with being healthy.

"What happened last year was unbelievable to me," he said. "I didn't see that coming at all. It was difficult, to say the least. Looking back on it now and knowing how I feel now, it's totally different. I have that . . . flexibility in my arm that I didn't have last year."

The injuries came at a high cost to Patterson: two of his prime years, at a point when he was perhaps one step away from becoming one of the elite pitchers in the National League. Now 30 years old, he is unwilling to dwell upon what he lost.

"I'm in the middle of my prime right now," he said. "It was very difficult to me to be hurt the last two years. It would be easy -- and you see it in a lot of guys -- to say, 'Man, enough of this.' . . . I could look at my numbers and say, 'I should be 60-30.' It would be easy to do that, but that would be focusing on the negative side of what has happened to me, and that's just not something I choose to focus on."

This is what Patterson is focusing on: March 30. On that night, the Nationals open the regular season at their new ballpark along the Anacostia riverfront against the Atlanta Braves, and Patterson has every intention of throwing the first pitch there. At this point, with his medical issues hopefully behind him for good, all that is left is building endurance. Already, he is throwing 100-plus pitches during his pre-camp bullpen sessions, and using every pitch in his arsenal.

"March 30 -- that's all I'm thinking about," Patterson said with a smile. "I have a one-track mind."

Nationals Note: A three-person panel of arbitrators sided with the Nationals in their salary arbitration case against infielder Felipe L¿pez, meaning L¿pez will earn the $4.9 million offered by the team in 2008 instead of the $5.2 million he was seeking.

Even with the loss, L¿pez receives a $1 million raise over the $3.9 million he made in 2007, when he batted .245 with nine homers and 50 RBI.

Bowden has won three of the four cases that have reached a hearing since joining the Nationals in 2005.

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