Monday, February 20, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — John Patterson had just completed his breakthrough season in the major leagues, one that saw the Washington Nationals right-hander establish himself as one of the game’s better pitchers.

Baseball, though, didn’t seem all that important to Patterson at the end of the 2005 season. There would be a time to reflect on all his success later on. Right then, he was more concerned about making it back to Orange, Texas.

One week earlier, Patterson’s hometown on the Texas-Louisiana border had taken a direct hit from Hurricane Rita, a storm that officially was declared more intense than Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans.

When he returned, Patterson was stunned by what he saw.

“On the news, all you hear about is Katrina, but Rita was just as bad,” he said. “It was terrible. You couldn’t drive down the street. There were trees everywhere. There’s still garbage piled up on the side of the road that they haven’t been able to pick up yet.”

Patterson’s home, which he built next door to his parents’ the previous offseason, was without power for a month. Still, he and his family consider themselves among the lucky ones after suffering minor damage compared to some of their friends and neighbors.

“It put a lot of things in perspective, how lucky I am to be able to do what I do,” he said.

For the first time in a long time, baseball was not a part of Patterson’s offseason. Instead of pitching in winter ball, he spent time with his family. His personal life finally took precedence over his professional one.

“For two solid years, it was nothing but baseball. That’s all I did,” Patterson said. “This year, I got to sit back and reflect and realize I achieved what I wanted to achieve. So it gave me time to relax, allow my body to recoup. I went hunting a lot, took a vacation. All those things let my mind relax and get back to some sanity.”

When he arrived for spring training Saturday, Patterson looked like a new man (and not only because of the beard he’s started growing or the six pounds he gained during the winter).

No, for the first time in his career, the 28-year-old looks like a bona fide, entrenched, major league pitcher.

“I think John gained that experience and understanding that he can do it now at this level,” manager Frank Robinson said. “He is what I call ‘established’ now on this staff. He doesn’t have to come here and win a job. All he has to do is get ready for the season.”

And make no mistake, the Nationals are expecting big things from the 6-foot-5 right-hander this year. After going 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 1981/3 innings, he’s got a stranglehold on the No. 2 spot in the rotation.

With a few lucky breaks, Patterson might have surpassed Livan Hernandez as the ace of Washington’s staff. Consider his total lack of run support (3.86 per nine innings, seventh worst in the NL), plus a late-September breakdown after a long season, and it’s not hard to imagine his final won-loss record being much better.

Seven times last season Patterson gave up one run or less only to wind up with a loss or no-decision.

“You get just a couple of runs in those games, that’s seven wins, and that gives me 16 right there,” he said. “That’s a pretty good number. 16-7 would have been all right.”

Of course, Patterson came nowhere close to recording 16 wins, and his frustration over his string of bad luck became obvious as the summer wore on. It seemed it would be only a matter of time before he cracked, lashing out at his teammates for failing to support him.

But the outburst never came, and that in itself speaks volumes about Patterson’s maturation as a pitcher.

“I think one of the best things he did last year was he forgot about his last start after it happened,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “If he had a good game and we didn’t score any runs, he didn’t worry about it. He went out there and did what he had to do to help the team win the game.”

If there was a turning point for Patterson, it came June 23 in Pittsburgh in a game remembered more for Ryan Church’s bone-crushing catch against the wall in the ninth.

Unsure the night before whether he would be able to make his scheduled start against the Pirates because of a lingering bad back, he took the mound on a sweltering afternoon and promptly served up three home runs in two innings. Then, just when it looked like he was ready to succumb, Patterson reached back and found something he never knew he had in him. He gutted out 61/3 innings, threw what was at the time a season-high 116 pitches and left the Nationals in position to win the game.

“I went out there and just kept throwing the ball and throwing the ball and kept getting better,” he said. “I came in after the game and was sitting at my locker, and I was like, ‘That was it. That was the turning point right there.’”

“It got him over the hump,” Robinson said. “It showed him he could do it. … I think that was his coming-out time.”

Of course, few will remember Patterson’s coming-out party if he doesn’t build upon it in 2006. He sounded determined to do so yesterday, hoping the changeup he learned from pitching coach Randy St. Claire helps propel him to new heights.

Because his place in the Nationals’ rotation is secure for the first time, Patterson can afford to devote much of his attention this spring to refining his new pitch — the same one that paid huge dividends for reliever Hector Carrasco a year ago.

Armed with four quality pitches now, Patterson believes he has a full arsenal for the first time since his days in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system.

And after a re-energizing offseason among family and friends, he seems poised for even bigger things.

“It feels good,” he said. “I’ve turned the corner.”

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