- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

CHICAGO — Throughout his long and frustrating return from right arm surgery, John Patterson has believed the best path to recovery is to keep taking the mound and push himself, through fatigue and tightness, until he feels like his old self again.

“It’s the only way to get better,” the Washington Nationals right-hander said. “It’s the only way to get stronger.”

But as he stood in the cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse yesterday following a 5-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs, after pulling himself out of the game in the third inning when his biceps became too sore to pitch, Patterson conceded the original plan may no longer make sense.

“The way it was feeling today, I don’t know if that’s the right answer,” he said.

Few developments during the first 30 games of the Nationals’ season have been more compelling (or more perplexing) than Patterson’s rollercoaster ride on the mound. Determined to fight his way back from last summer’s surgery to repair an impinged nerve in his right elbow, the 29-year-old keeps finding ways to get sidetracked.

The last week alone has featured a string of confounding events. On Monday, Patterson tossed six standout innings to beat the San Diego Padres. On Wednesday, he felt soreness in his biceps while making his regularly scheduled bullpen session. Upon arriving in Chicago on Thursday, he experienced a recurrence of the virus that has plagued him for weeks. On Friday in Chicago, he was struck in the left cheek by a ball during batting practice, a freak accident that left him seeing “stars for a little while.”

All of that culminated with yesterday’s events. From the moment he threw his first pitch to ex-teammate Alfonso Soriano, Patterson didn’t look right. His fastball hovered in the mid-to-upper 80s. He gave up three hits in the first, a hit and a walk in the second and a homer and two singles to open the third. By the time he fell behind in the count 3-1 to Chicago’s Matt Murton, the “throbbing” soreness in his throwing arm was too much to bear.

“It’s just one of those things I’ve been pitching through,” said Patterson, now 1-5 with a 7.47 ERA. “Some days it’s OK, some days it’s not. Today it just wasn’t.”

After a brief consultation on the mound with manager Manny Acta and head trainer Lee Kuntz, Patterson walked off the field. He might have an MRI today to determine if there’s any new structural damage to his arm, but Acta said it’s doubtful he’ll make his next scheduled start.

Whether the would-be ace of the Washington staff winds up on the disabled list or not remains to be determined.

“We’re going to make the best decision for John, after we get the MRI,” Acta said. “Whatever it takes just to get him back, completely right, instead of rushing him out on the field and making it worse.”

At the point Patterson came out of the game, the Nationals trailed 2-0, with two runners on and Murton still up with a 3-1 count. By the time the third inning ended, rookie reliever Levale Speigner had turned it into a 5-0 deficit. Speigner walked three of the first four batters he faced, losing all ability to find the strike zone.

Yet somehow, the Nationals kept themselves in the ballgame and even had several chances to win it. They loaded the bases with two outs in the third, then watched as Austin Kearns crushed a pitch from Rich Hill toward the left-field bleachers. On a warm summer day at Wrigley it might have turned into a grand slam. But on a 53-degree day with the wind blowing in, it was nothing more than a long flyout.

“I thought I got enough of it,” Kearns said. “But who was I kidding?”

Washington finally broke through with a run off Hill in the sixth, then pushed two more across in the eighth off the Cubs bullpen, thanks to doubles from Ryan Zimmerman, Kearns and Jesus Flores. But with the tying runs on second and third and only one out, rookie Kory Casto struck out swinging at a fastball from lefty Neal Cotts.

“I tried to do a little too much with the fastball when I saw it,” said Casto, just 2-for-19 since his recall from Class AAA Columbus.

Moments later, Cotts got Ryan Langerhans — the newly acquired outfielder still looking to make his mark with the Nationals — to look at an 0-2 fastball that ended the inning.

“I need to go up there and relax,” said Langerhans, 3-for-47 this season. “I think part of this was trying to put too much pressure on myself, feeling like I had to get it done to make a good impression.”

Thus the Nationals (9-21) dropped their fourth straight, ensuring another series loss and all the while hoping the man expected to lead their pitching staff doesn’t experience any more derailments.

“It’s just been a crazy month,” Patterson said. “I’ve been sick for almost the whole month. I’m finally on medicine, trying to get that cleared up. I get hit in the face with a ball yesterday. And my arm’s throbbing sore. I mean, how much more stuff can you deal with?”

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