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Curves Are Coming Fast

"I got to put the uniform on for another day and pitch," says Nationals right-hander John Patterson, who believes he his healthy again. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, March 2, 2008

VIERA, Fla.

John Patterson and Shawn Hill both have long, bright red scars, still fresh, on their right forearms. Which wouldn't be a problem if they were southpaws. But they're not. The two Nationals pitchers with the most potential, the best brief flashes of success in the big leagues, both had similar operations since last season -- "nerve decompression surgery." Just one day ago, their twin scars were viewed as great blessings for the Nationals' pitching staff. Surely, now repaired and in glowing health, this pair would anchor the rotation as the Nos. 1 and 2 starters with one of them sure to pitch the Opener in The New Park on March 30.

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Hold the champagne.

On the second pitch of the second inning here against Baltimore, an Orioles rookie named Scott Moore tagged a 410-foot home run off Patterson in his first appearance on the mound since last June. While his curveball was sharp in his two innings, Patterson's fastball looked much like it did early last season -- respectable, but nothing remotely like the heater of '05.

"Looks like Patterson's arm hurts him," said Orioles executive Mike Flanagan, meaning no harm, just ballpark chat. "He used to have this nice long arm extension. Now his motion is short and he's throwing a lot of curveballs."

"Patterson says he feels great," I said. "You never saw a guy so happy to be pitching again."

"I'm probably wrong," Flanagan said apologetically. Unfortunately, about pitching, he seldom is. Until Patterson gets a radar gun to 92 mph this season, feel free to hold your breath.

Minutes after Moore's homer in a 4-1 Nationals loss, word arrived that Hill had undergone a precautionary MRI exam for right forearm tightness. While results were "unremarkable" and his problem might only be "overuse syndrome," Hill will have to halt his spring program and "medicate his symptoms." Tomorrow, he goes to Duke University for another opinion.

To translate this news into the common sense wisdom of the dugout, just look at the grim face of Nationals Manager Manny Acta. "I feel sorry for the kid. He hasn't been able to pitch a full season without injury for five years. Tough breaks in life," Acta said.

"That's why we got [Odalis] PĂ©rez," Acta said of the recent low-priced signing of a lefty (career 66-70) who was pummeled for a 5.57 ERA in Kansas City last year, but started 26 games. "When people have the injury history that [Patterson and Hill] do, we just couldn't come over here to camp with those guys penciled in number one and two."

Pressed about how the Nationals could cope with more injuries or disappointments this season from Hill, Patterson or both, Acta flared a bit for one of the few times since he's been manager. "It's not like they have won 20 games three times apiece," he said. "We want them to come back. But we have enough [without them]. . . . Nobody in this room knows how good they are. We are just trying to guess how good they might be because they have good stuff." That is, if they could ever stay healthy.

Someday, the Nationals will produce enough young pitching through the minors to plug such holes. "That's at least a year away," Acta said. For now, the Nationals will have to play the cards they're dealt. If Patterson must throw more curves and forget the days when his hopping fastball set up everything else -- and made him one of the NL's best pitchers in '05 -- then so be it. As for Hill, Acta said: "We'll rest him a little. But he may have to deal with this the rest of his life. Maybe we'll have to modify some things -- skip side sessions, limit his throwing" except in games.


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