- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

Perhaps it has been overlooked because of the Nationals’ extended recent slump, but John Patterson has become Washington’s best pitcher over the last month.

Sure, Livan Hernandez has his 13 wins and 145-pitch outings, and those shouldn’t be disregarded. But not even the unquestioned Nationals ace is pitching as well as Patterson these days.

In fact, you could make a legitimate case that Patterson — who last night shut out the Los Angeles Dodgers on four hits en route to a 7-0 victory — has been the best pitcher in the major leagues since early July.

Over his last six starts, Patterson has posted a 1.02 ERA, has struck out 54 batters in 44 innings and hasn’t surrendered more than two runs in any outing.

And he’s got an air of invincibility around him now. Both he and his teammates believe anything is possible when he pitches.

“It’s not cockiness, but it’s confidence,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “When he goes out there, he’s got that swagger about him. He’s going out there competing at a higher level now.”

Though he had received precious little support this season, Patterson (5-3) got plenty last night. From his teammates, who erupted late to produce their biggest offensive output in 22 games, thanks in large part to Wilkerson’s eighth-inning grand slam. And from the RFK Stadium crowd of 35,484 that cheered every one of Patterson’s career-high 13 strikeouts, not to mention the Nationals’ second straight win over the Dodgers.

“For the first time in my career, I feel comfortable in the clubhouse,” Patterson said. “I feel comfortable in the city. I feel comfortable with the fans. I love playing for Frank Robinson — he motivates me in a lot of ways because I have so much respect for him. … I’m happy. I feel comfortable. I feel like I’m in my element.”

Patterson certainly felt good about giving Washington its first series victory in eight tries. The way this club was reeling, you had to wonder if it was ever going to win another.

“It’s a nice feeling,” Robinson said. “Maybe it’s a sign of things to come.”

The Nationals did it in grand style last night, thanks to Patterson’s brilliance and Wilkerson’s power display. Washington led just 2-0 going into the bottom of the eighth but exploded for five runs, four of them on Wilkerson’s blast to right field off reliever Duaner Sanchez.

It was Washington’s first grand slam of the season — and the first at RFK since a man named Frank Robinson did it while wearing a Baltimore Orioles uniform on June 26, 1970.

“Really? I didn’t know that,” Wilkerson said. “That’s pretty cool. That’s really cool.”

Wilkerson’s slam capped a rare night of high-octane offense from the Nationals, much of it from unlikely sources. Third baseman Vinny Castilla, hitting .216 since April, drove in the game’s first run with a fourth-inning double. He later scored on a groundout by Cristian Guzman — Guzman’s first RBI in more than six weeks . He last drove in a run June20 in Pittsburgh.

What’s more, the oft-criticized shortstop was just getting started. He did it again in the eighth, lining a bases-loaded single past first baseman Jeff Kent to make it 3-0 and give Patterson a chance to come back out and go for the shutout.

“I knew something was going to happen, because I work too hard,” Guzman said. “In bad times, I’m just trying to help my team.”

With a comfortable lead now in hand — something he hadn’t had in weeks — Patterson was free to let it all hang out, and the right-hander didn’t disappoint. He took the mound in the fifth with a 2-0 lead and proceeded to strike out the side.

“That’s all I needed tonight,” he said. “That’s all I needed.”

One inning later, Patterson broke Oscar Robles’ back on a curveball for his 11th strikeout, a career best. And he still wasn’t finished. He fanned Kent in the seventh for No. 12, then got Dioner Navarro looking to end the eighth for lucky No. 13.

With a seven-run lead at his disposal, Patterson took the mound in the ninth to a standing ovation. The fans never left their feet, and when he got Milton Bradley to fly out to complete his first career shutout, the celebration was on.

“It’s been an amazing year,” Patterson said. “The dream I had coming into this season was to play just like this, and it’s working. … This is what I’ve always believed that I could do.”

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