- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

In the process of evolving into the Washington Nationals’ most consistent starting pitcher, John Patterson conquered elbow surgery, a long and difficult recovery and the weight of failed expectations. But at 27, in what amounts to his first full season, he is still a work in progress. There is always something to learn, this or that problem to figure out.

Such as runs. Patterson rarely gets any. And even when he does, sometimes they do little good.

“Early in the season, I was [frustrated],” he said. “I was confident, healthy, pitching the way I envisioned I could pitch. I had a good group of guys around me, and I was happy to be here. The one thing that was missing was getting the W’s. It was a little bit frustrating. I was wondering, ‘What do I have to do?’ ”

The answer: pitch longer into the game. And if that doesn’t help, just deal with it. Now, said catcher Brian Schneider, “he’s done away with those frustrations.”

Patterson, who will face the Florida Marlins tonight at RFK Stadium, has a 2.44 ERA, fifth best in the National League. He has allowed two or less runs in 19 of 26 starts. Yet instead of double-figure victories, he is just 8-4. In seven of his starts he allowed one or no runs and failed to get a victory.

Like Houston Astros ace Roger Clemens and teammate Esteban Loaiza, Patterson could blame a lack of support (3.96 runs a game, ninth worst among NL starters) and plain bad luck. In his last outing Saturday, the lean, 6-foot-5 right-hander gave up one run, five hits and struck out eight in 72/3 innings against Philadelphia. He exulted in the dugout as reliever Joey Eischen escaped a bases-loaded jam and retreated to the clubhouse with a 2-1 lead. When the Nationals added two runs with superb closer Chad Cordero coming in, Patterson’s ninth victory seemed to be a lock.

But Mr. Reliable blew the three-run lead in the ninth inning. It felt, Patterson said, “like somebody punched you in the stomach.” Then the Nationals won in the 12th, and all was good. Earlier in the season Patterson might have pouted, sulked or otherwise showed a hissy side. Not anymore.

“I can only handle what I can handle,” he said. “My job is to go out and pitch and keep the team in the game for as long as I can. Personal victories don’t mean as much as a team victory.”

A lovely sentiment. But is it true?

“A lot of pitchers say, ‘When I start I just want the team to win,’ but few really believe it,” Nationals TV analyst and former big league pitcher Ron Darling said. “They want to win. But John Patterson comes close to really believing that.”

Patterson started spring training as an enigma, a former first-round draft pick with talent who had never panned out. Last season was his first in Montreal after a trade from Arizona. Limited by a torn groin muscle, Patterson went 4-7 with an unsightly 5.03 ERA.

“He had started to put things together,” manager Frank Robinson said. “He’d shown flashes in the past, but he just didn’t sustain it.”

Pegged as the Nationals’ fourth starter at best, Patterson, in his mind, was a different pitcher entirely after winter ball in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s where I got my confidence back,” he said.

He worked on the alterations that pitching coach Randy St. Clair made to his delivery. And he did it alone. With Arizona, Patterson said, different coaches always were suggesting different things.

“So many mechanical changes had been made to my motion,” he said. “It was hurting me in the long run. [But in the Dominican,] I didn’t have people saying, ‘Do this, try that.’ I let my natural ability come back. It got my mind back into the game. It got my competitiveness back.”

Robinson said Patterson’s confidence is the biggest difference from last year. Now, Schneider agreed, “he’s a little cocky out there. He’s got a little fire. He stares people down sometimes. He gets [ticked] off, and that’s good for a starting pitcher as long as he can control it.”

Patterson was groomed to be here. His dad, Doug, was a Baltimore Orioles farmhand who got as high as Class AAA, and together they worked ceaselessly back home in Orange, Texas. Coming out of high school in 1996, Patterson was drafted fifth overall by Montreal, of all teams. But after the parties failed to reach agreement, the Expos lost his rights through a loophole, and Patterson signed with the Diamondbacks for a $6 million bonus.

With Brad Penny and Nick Bierbrodt, Patterson was to be part of Arizona’s trio of young guns. But things soured from the start. Because of the money, Patterson was rudely greeted by veterans. He struggled in the minors. “Where’s John Patterson?” people asked. Then in 2000, he blew out his elbow.

Ligament-replacement surgery rebuilt the arm, but Patterson missed most of two seasons. He moped in his Tucson apartment, watching his friends play on TV. His recovery took longer than expected. Two years after the operation, he still wasn’t right.

“It just wasn’t happening,” he said. “I needed to leave Arizona. I was there too long.”

Looking back, former Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said, “I think John Patterson is one of those players who had to go someplace else to succeed. I think he felt the burden of the circumstances of his signing and the big bonus, and maybe he was subconsciously toting that around with him.”

There was nothing subconscious about it.

“The expectations were really, really high, and the frustrations mounted,” Patterson said. “It was rough. It was tough to look people in the face. Management wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy.”

After two seasons in Class AAA and some brief major league exposure, Patterson was dealt to the Expos for pitcher Randy Choate during spring training 2004.

“When we traded him, it seemed it was like, ‘OK, I’m not the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ anymore,’ ” said Garagiola, now senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. “Maybe he was just a ballplayer who had been traded and it freed him up.”

Patterson agrees. But he had another move to make. He needed to go live “somewhere where I could take a deep breath, refocus and put all my energy into going in the right direction.”

That place was home, east Texas, back to his roots.

“It put me back in a positive environment,” Patterson said. “It was like going back to the drawing board and erasing everything and starting over. I started completely over. I went back to doing the things I did in high school and early in pro ball.”

Amid all the changes, there was yet one more in store for Patterson. This one is obvious. Just look for “Nationals” on his chest.

“A new city where nobody knew me and I was healthy,” he said. “I had a place to come and showcase myself, like, this is what people saw early in my career, before I got hurt. My velocity is not as high as it was. Will it ever be? I don’t know. But at least I’m healthy, and I can compete with what I’m throwing up there right now.”

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