- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson insisted before last night’s exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves that it was not a critical outing for beleaguered No. 5 starter Zach Day.

Apparently, Day didn’t get the message, because he pitched like his job depended on it.

Overcoming both a 1-hour, 28-minute rain delay and an imposing lineup sent out by the Braves, the 26-year-old right-hander put together his best start of the spring. In five innings, he allowed one run on four hits and needed only 55 pitches to do it.

More impressive than Day’s final pitching line, though, was the manner in which he went right after Atlanta’s hitters. After frequently falling behind in the count and struggling with mechanics in a disastrous start against the St. Louis Cardinals last week, Day was ahead of nearly every man he faced last night.

“A big step in the right direction,” Robinson said. “He can work from that. That was a good outing for him. That’s what you’re looking for: getting the ball over the plate and challenging hitters.”

Aside from a pair of long doubles - one by Marcus Giles in the first inning, one by Adam LaRoche in the third - Day was in control. He walked none and struck out two, including cleanup hitter Andruw Jones in the fourth.

By the time he departed with the Nationals trailing 1-0, he had thrown 42 strikes and only 13 balls, re-establishing himself as the front-runner for the final spot in the rotation. Washington wound up losing to the Braves 4-0.

“I haven’t been too hard on myself yet,” Day said. “But in the meantime, I do want to go out there and perform. I want to show them what I can do. I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself, but going out there and doing that helps a lot.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Robinson tried his best to downplay the importance of Day’s start.

“It’s not down to tonight,” the manager said. “He’s got at least three more starts after this.”

Make no mistake, though: The Nationals needed to see something positive from Day after two straight shaky outings caused him to lose his once-assumed safe standing in the season-opening rotation.

Day’s previous appearance didn’t do much for his cause. Tagged for six runs (three earned) by the Cardinals in just two innings, he looked confused at times on the mound, perhaps because he was working with backup catcher Gary Bennett for the first time.

Afterward, Robinson lamented Day’s history of inconsistent pitching. Despite a solid 3.93 ERA in 19 outings last season, Day never won more than two starts in a row and finished 5-10.

He came to camp this spring determined to take the next step in his career progression but took two big steps backward in his last appearance.

Through it all, Robinson has tried to stay positive with Day and boost his confidence.

“There’s nothing wrong with his arm,” Robinson said. “He’s throwing the ball well. It’s just a matter of him being sharper and being more consistent.”

If they don’t see that consistency from Day and soon, the Nationals won’t hesitate to hand the job to John Patterson or Jon Rauch, two young right-handers who appear to be coming into their own this spring.

Patterson, 4-7 with a 5.03 ERA in 19 starts for the Expos last year, thrust himself into the mix with two solid relief appearances earlier this month. But given a chance to start Tuesday night for the first time this spring, the 27-year-old may have let the pressure get to him.

After cruising through the first inning of the split-squad game against the Houston Astros, Patterson wilted. By the time he was pulled two batters into the fourth inning, he had surrendered five runs on seven hits.

Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who made the trip to Kissimmee to watch first-hand, noted Patterson fell behind several hitters and then left his subsequent fastballs up in the strike zone.

The results weren’t pretty, but St. Claire made sure Patterson didn’t get too down on himself.

“He asked me today if there’s anything different he should do, and I said, ‘Don’t start thinking about that,’” St. Claire said. “You made some mistakes, but you’re fine. Your delivery was fine.”

Rauch came in to relieve Patterson and experienced an up-and-down night of his own, allowing one run and three hits in two innings. That made only a slight dent in the 6-foot-11 right-hander’s sparkling spring ERA, which stands at 2.25.

All three are candidates for the bullpen if they don’t win a spot in the rotation. The Nationals, though, don’t want any of them looking at such a move as a demotion, particularly Patterson, who has stated he will accept nothing less than a starting job.

“That’s where he wants to be, and I hope he continues to go after it like that,” St. Claire said. “But if it doesn’t happen that way, I don’t think you can be close-minded about being a bullpen guy. There’s a lot of good starters who went to the bullpen and ended up having outstanding careers. So I don’t think you should be too close-minded and look at it as a negative if you do get sent to the bullpen.”

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