Game Canceled, Patterson Watch Ppd.

"I think it's a year that if he's ready to go, he's going to have to go," reliever Ray King says of John Patterson, limited to 15 starts since 2006.
"I think it's a year that if he's ready to go, he's going to have to go," reliever Ray King says of John Patterson, limited to 15 starts since 2006. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008; Page E05

VIERA, Fla., March 6 -- That the skies opened around 5 p.m. Thursday would normally mean little to the Washington Nationals, who at this point in spring training don't mind an unexpected day off. The night game with the New York Mets was canceled, and the Nationals' evening rapidly degenerated into a series of card games and kangaroo court sessions in the home clubhouse.

But the rainout deprived some Nationals, not to mention some members of the front office, one of the rites of spring here: a chance to monitor the right arm -- and the psyche that goes along with it -- of one John Patterson.

"I'd like to see the fastball," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

"I think everyone wants to see what he can do," veteran reliever Ray King said.

Patterson is now in a bit of an odd space in his own clubhouse. He is neither promising prospect nor presumed ace, not a reliable 200-inning veteran nor a hanger-on. Rather, the Nationals need Patterson to be something he has been infrequently in a professional career that dates from 1997.

"He doesn't need to throw 200 innings," said José Rijo, a special assistant to Bowden who reached that number just three times in a 14-year career hampered by injuries. "He just needs to go out there every five days. The best thing he can do is make the manager feel comfortable. One thing the manager hates is something that he has to worry about. Then it's harder for him. It screws up the whole program."

Thus, each of Patterson's starts -- be it in Viera or Washington -- is met with some mix of anticipation and trepidation. What might go right often is overlooked, replaced by what could go wrong. "History's there," Manager Manny Acta said. "You can't change it."

So it is up to Patterson to take each time on the mound to distance himself from all the injuries, all the misfortune, to show others what they want to see -- as long as it's what he's comfortable showing. Bowden, for instance, wanted to see Patterson's fastball Thursday because the 30-year-old spent his first start of the spring snapping off curveballs, too tentative with his mechanics to extend himself to his full six-foot stride.

Those details -- things that might seem mundane to other players -- are paramount to Patterson. Thus far this spring, there have been no wrinkles in the way he feels, none of the problems with his arm that limited him to 15 starts in 2006 and '07 -- combined. So with those good feelings in his body comes a clear head. As Acta said, "He's bouncing around looking a lot more happy than last year -- and smiling."

"I'm very relaxed," Patterson said. "I'm healthy. I feel good."

That's why Patterson's first start -- just two innings against Baltimore last week -- was concerning to some in the organization. They had, after all, seen him throw a lively fastball in bullpen sessions.

"From Day One in his bullpen [sessions], he's been able to command his pitches, which is really a good sign for us," Acta said. "Usually when guys are hurting, they can't command the ball."

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