- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

BALTIMORE — There is no question that John Patterson’s return to the Washington Nationals will do wonders for a team that has sorely lacked a staff ace this season.

Now, if only the Nationals can get Nick Johnson back in their lineup.

As big a lift as Patterson gave his team last night with an impressive return to the mound, he can’t do anything about a Washington lineup that has turned inept with Johnson out the last week.

So not even Patterson’s standout effort could keep the Nationals from a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Ultimately, Rodrigo Lopez’s seven innings of one-run ball topped Patterson’s six innings of two-run ball. It sent Washington to its fourth straight loss yet sent most of the sellout crowd of 48,331 at Camden Yards home happy.

“We haven’t been giving our pitchers a lot of support,” shortstop Royce Clayton said. “They’ve been doing their job. But to be a good team, you have to be able to do both. We just haven’t been able to deliver in a clutch situation.”

That’s putting it mildly. The Nationals have scored 13 total runs in their last five games. Last night, they went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and 1-for-15 with anyone on base, squandering every opportunity they had against Lopez (5-8) and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Chris Ray (19th save).

Washington (32-43) simply could not move a runner up. Twelve hitters stepped to the plate with a man on base in the first six innings alone. Only one (Alfonso Soriano) managed to advance the runner, and that came on a weak groundout to second and was immediately followed by two more outs, stranding the runner on third.

Clayton led off the fifth with a double, then never moved an inch. Jose Vidro led off the sixth with a single and was stranded at first after Jose Guillen and Marlon Anderson (getting a rare start as designated hitter and cleanup hitter) struck out and Ryan Zimmerman grounded out.

“I think everybody is trying to hit a home run,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Everybody’s trying to do it all themselves, one guy. One person can’t do it. Just do the simple, little things to help this team win ballgames. We’re not doing any of those things.”

The only man to come through in the clutch last night was Daryle Ward, who came off the bench in the seventh with a runner on third and one out and promptly lofted a sacrifice fly to left to score the Nationals’ lone run.

But that was Ward’s only at-bat of the game, raising the question of why he wasn’t in the lineup to begin with. Robinson, though, went with Robert Fick at first base in place of Johnson (who may not be ready to return from a strained lower back until next week) and went with Anderson at DH instead of Ward.

The reason? Anderson was 3-for-6 in his career against Lopez. Ward was 0-for-3.

“I believe I can hit anybody,” said Ward, who’s hitting .304 with five homers and 12 RBI in limited playing time. “I don’t care what the computer says. I know in my mind, I should have been in there.”

But he wasn’t, and those who were in the lineup couldn’t come through with some run support for Patterson.

The mere sight of the 6-foot-5 right-hander striding to the mound last night still had to be comforting to the Nationals, who have desperately missed their would-be ace. When word of his forearm strain first was announced following his April 21 start, consensus opinion was that he would be back within a week. But a week turned into two weeks, then a month, then two months.

The Nationals, though, didn’t want to rush Patterson back. And Patterson didn’t want to return until he felt like he was in midseason form. That may have been the one benefit of the long layoff: It allowed Patterson to make three rehabilitation starts and gradually build up his arm strength to the point where he was ready to throw 90 pitches last night.

It all paid off, because Patterson (1-1) — even on a sweltering, 90-degree evening — didn’t show any signs of rust.

“I think we went about it the right way,” he said. “We could have rushed it. There were times where I felt like I could come back. But management kept me slow and easy and let me work my way through it.”

The Orioles did break through twice against Patterson, though hardly in spectacular fashion. They scored one run in the third on two singles, a sacrifice bunt and Melvin Mora’s sacrifice fly. They added an unearned run in the sixth, when Mora reached on Clayton’s fielding error, stole second with two outs and then came around on Corey Patterson’s single to center.

Of course, John Patterson’s efforts weren’t going to count for much unless his teammates supplied him with offensive support. And that was in short supply on this night.

“He pitched great,” right fielder Jose Guillen said. “It’s too bad that we didn’t give him any run support.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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