Nationals 7, Dodgers 0

It's easy to tell when it's John Patterson's turn to pitch, because when he walks through the clubhouse door, his gait -- already full of Texas-sized strides, slow and smooth -- is somehow more methodical, his gaze so intense he wouldn't notice if you stood right next to him. When it's time for pregame music -- the choice of the starting pitcher -- the home locker room at RFK Stadium thumps with a pounding techno beat that makes some teammates scurry to back rooms.

"It drives these guys crazy," Patterson said.

Yet by the time Patterson takes the mound, the rest of the Washington Nationals likely wouldn't care if he wore garter belts -- a la Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham" -- and preferred to listen to fingernails scratching across a chalkboard. He is pitching so well, he has earned the right to eat nails or snails, to play Madonna or Metallica. And last night's performance in a four-hit, 7-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Dodgers merely punctuated the fact that, when examining National League pitchers and their effectiveness, one might want to throw out wins and losses and look to Patterson, who's pitching as well as anyone in baseball.

"How much better can you get?" Manager Frank Robinson wondered afterward. "A no-hitter?"

That's about what it would take to top last night's effort in front of an announced crowd of 35,422 that was so appreciative of the outing -- one that featured a career-high 13 strikeouts and not a single walk -- that Patterson doffed his cap as he loped off the field, and went out of his way to express his feelings for Washington afterward. There were other things to cheer about, such as Brad Wilkerson's eighth-inning grand slam, the first in Nationals history, and two RBI from shortstop Cristian Guzman, the first runs he has driven in since June 20.

"It's about time I did something for my team," Guzman said.

There is no National doing more for his team right now than Patterson. The complete-game shutout was the first for a National, the first of Patterson's career, which only now is beginning to show glimpses of what every scout saw when he was taken, by none other than the Montreal Expos, with the fifth pick in the 1996 draft out of the little east Texas town of Orange. The Expos never signed Patterson, he ended up with Arizona, and inconsistency and injuries -- particularly elbow surgery in 2000 -- nearly drove him to obscurity. Last year, late in spring training, the Expos traded a left-handed reliever named Randy Choate to the Diamondbacks for Patterson.

Since then, the development has been slow, but it is now in full flourish. "I think it's all about his health," Wilkerson said, and Patterson didn't disagree.

"I feel like I can do things now without worrying about looking over my shoulder," Patterson said, "like I'm going to be hurt."

His past six starts show what he can do when he's confident in his arm and unbothered by his back, a problem earlier in the season. Since July 9, he has posted a 1.02 ERA, walked eight and struck out 54 in 44 innings. In 15 of his 20 starts, he has allowed two or fewer runs. His ERA is now down to 2.42, a number bettered by only three National League starters -- Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt of Houston and St. Louis's Chris Carpenter. By all rights, his record should be gaudier than its current 5-3.

"I think he's learning to deal with that," Robinson said.

He was unfazed by anything from the moment he walked into the clubhouse yesterday afternoon. He allowed a single to Cesar Izturis to lead off the game, but erased him on a double play. He allowed a two-out single to Antonio Perez in the second, but struck out Jose Valentin to end the inning. He retired 12 straight until Izturis hit a double in the sixth, a ball that should have been caught by left fielder Preston Wilson. And after returning for the ninth -- buoyed by Guzman's bases-loaded single and Wilkerson's grand slam that broke open a 2-0 game -- he allowed a two-out single to Oscar Robles before retiring Milton Bradley on a liner to center.

"He was lights out," third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "Just an unbelievable performance."

It has been a long time coming. Afterward, Patterson said, "It's the first time in my career I've been happy." He was asked to elaborate.

"For the first time in my career, I feel comfortable in the clubhouse," he said. "I feel comfortable with the city. I feel comfortable with the fans. I love playing for Frank Robinson. He motivates me in so many ways because I have so much respect for him. . . . I feel like I'm in my element."

Thus, for the moment, the Nationals might be getting back into an element that was once more familiar and is certainly more palatable. They took two of three from the Dodgers, their first series win since they swept the Chicago Cubs July 1-3, which was also the last time they won back-to-back games. With the San Diego Padres -- who lead the N.L. West, but are under .500 -- arriving at RFK to begin a three-game series tonight, the Nationals might, after a month of misery, be in position to pounce.

"We need the momentum," Wilkerson said.

At least one of them has it. When he walked off the field -- all the techno he wanted waiting in the clubhouse -- Patterson looked to the crowd, raised his hat toward the fans along the third base line, then his glove toward those near first.

"I love the fans here," Patterson said. "I love them. They get behind me, and it pushes me to another level."

John Patterson tips his hat to the crowd at RFK after tossing a four-hitter. Brad Wilkerson hit the first grand slam in Nats history.Ryan Church steals second in the fourth inning as Dodgers second baseman Antonio Perez stretches for the throw.