Nationals 4, Rockies 0
There was no Cristian Guzman at shortstop. Nor was Vinny Castilla over at third. The lineup looked as if it had been assembled by scribbling names on sheets of paper, placing them in a bin, spinning it around and pulling them out.
But this Washington Nationals team has never been about offense, and that didn't change overnight. Instead, John Patterson showed up at the ballpark, his right arm feeling good, his gaze focused.
"I wanted a win tonight, plain and simple," Patterson said. "That's all I was trying to do."
Given the environment around the Nationals these days, that result is neither plain nor simple, yet Patterson delivered in brilliant fashion. He pitched into the ninth inning of a 4-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies at RFK Stadium, sweat glistening off his forehead on a sweltering evening on which the Nationals needed a win like they hadn't at any previous point in the season.
"He was unbelievable," said Brad Wilkerson, who normally leads off and plays the outfield, but in this strange new world hit third and played first base.
Patterson allowed just three singles over those eight-plus innings, striking out eight, walking just two. He showed the kind of stuff that has his teammates believing he could be a top-flight starter, one other teams fear. Yet had he not received the win last night -- he hadn't won since June 11, and had 11 no-decisions this season -- he might have been near his breaking point. Pick up the paper this morning, and his record is just 4-2. He knows, though, that doesn't reflect how he's pitched.
"I know what I'm doing," Patterson said. "The team knows what I'm doing. And that's all I'm really concerned with right now."
In four starts in July, Patterson has a 1.33 ERA, has twice pitched shutout ball for at least seven innings, and has walked only seven while striking out 32 in 27 innings. That culminated in what was arguably his most important start of the year, when the Nationals were reeling -- having lost nine of 12, in their worst slump of the year. Asked if he felt pressure to end the skid, Patterson was direct.
"Yeah," he said. "I did."
The victory ensured, at least for the night, that the Nationals could once again rest their heads on their pillows knowing they would wake up in first place. After a miserable 5-4 loss to Colorado on Monday, the Atlanta Braves had closed to within a half-game. But the Nationals know this: Win, and there's no way the Braves can catch up. (Atlanta lost, 5-4, last night in San Francisco.)
The lineup changes -- as sweeping as they could be on a team with limited offensive resources -- were designed to make sure they remained in first place, not to mention to ignite a stagnant offense. Not only did Guzman, hitting .190, sit down in favor of utility man Jamey Carroll, but Carlos Baerga replaced the ailing Castilla, who will rest his balky left knee for a few days.
But Manager Frank Robinson made changes other than those because of slumps or injuries. Each of the 87 previous times Wilkerson started a game for the Nationals, he batted first. Last night, Robinson hit him third. Carroll moved to the leadoff spot, where he hadn't been before. Catcher Brian Schneider, on a tear over the past month, hit fifth for the first time all year. Former Rockie Preston Wilson was sixth, and Ryan Church, who had hit second, fifth and sixth, started in the seventh spot, where he had never hit before. Baerga -- who as recently as July 7 hit cleanup -- was in the eighth spot for the first time this season.
"Sometimes, lineup changes and that stuff just puts different thoughts in people's mind, in the way they approach the game," second baseman Jose Vidro said.
In truth, the Nationals scored just two runs through seven innings off Colorado starter Shawn Chacon, and needed help from an old friend, right-hander Zach Day -- who was swapped for Wilson last week -- to hang two more on the board in the eighth. But for one game, the changes worked. The six players who hit in their spot for the first time this year combined to go 8 for 19 with three runs scored and four RBI.
"I'm not going to say it paid off," Schneider said. "But maybe it got some people's attention."
Robinson, naturally, didn't want to give the shake-up too much credit for one win, though he'll likely roll out a similar lineup in the series finale tonight. And the manager knows there were also wasted opportunities before Schneider and Wilson delivered run-scoring hits off Day in the eighth.
"When you're moving around the bases and you're putting people on base, you just seem to have a little more life," Robinson said. "But it all starts with the pitching, starting pitching. Patterson set the tone."
He was able to set the tone because he got ahead of hitters and went into the game with the idea of conserving pitches early on so that he would have more of a chance to work deep into the game. It worked flawlessly. The muggy night made the grip on his curveball shaky, he said, so he relied on his fastball, which he moved in and out, baffling the Rockies.
When Robinson came to get him in the ninth, after he allowed a leadoff single to Todd Helton, the announced crowd of 30,655 rose, the cheers thundering through RFK. The team needed a win. Patterson needed a win. Everybody seemed to sense it.
Patterson strode slowly off the field to the dugout, and finally doffed his cap, waving it to all parts of RFK. Personal stats aside, this start was enormous.
"It's what we needed," he said.