- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

TORONTO — He’s one of the few reasons for optimism on a Washington Nationals ballclub that has hit rock-bottom. If John Patterson can’t give this team a lift, no one can.

So when Patterson trudged off the mound in the fourth inning last night at Rogers Centre, his outing cut short by right arm fatigue, it was hard to find any more reasons for hope for this downtrodden bunch.

An 8-4 loss to the Blue Jays — capping a three-game sweep in Toronto and a 1-8 road trip — was the latest indignity to the Nationals’ fast-fading season. Pending the outcome of tonight’s game at RFK Stadium against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Washington (33-47) will reach the midway point of the year on pace for either 94 or 96 losses.

Oh well, they’ll always have the memory of last season’s 50-31 first half.

“We all are victims of this,” said manager Frank Robinson, who on Wednesday told his players it was time to look at themselves in the mirror. “We all have to take a certain amount of the blame for why we’re not playing well as a team.”

Last night, the blame started with Patterson, whose breakthrough 2005 season almost feels like an afterthought now. Sidelined for two months by a strained forearm, the 28-year-old right-hander already knew he would have to adjust his goals for 2006. For now, he might want to just set his sights on avoiding the disabled list for the next three months.

It doesn’t appear he’s headed back there after this latest calamity. Though Robinson said Patterson’s next scheduled start — Tuesday against the Florida Marlins — was “absolutely” in jeopardy, Patterson insisted he would be ready.

“We’re going to see how I feel tomorrow, but I plan on making my next start,” he said. “I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to.”

With so little going right for the Nationals, the sight of Patterson taking the mound last night had to be encouraging. But it was obvious from the start something wasn’t right.

Patterson’s fastball, which was consistently in the low 90s last week during his first start back from the DL, was stuck between 89 and 91 mph last night. His breaking balls had no bite. And he appeared to be sweating profusely, despite 68-degree temperatures inside Rogers Centre.

“I looked at John’s body language,” Robinson said. “He just didn’t look like he was into it tonight.”

As Patterson would describe it later, he was experiencing “dead arm,” an ailment that often befalls pitchers during spring training as they try to build up strength.

“Which is realistically kind of where I am right now,” he said. “I’m at that part of the season.”

That Patterson would suffer through this now does seem a bit odd. After all, he and the Nationals went out of their way to ease him along from his forearm strain, giving him countless bullpen sessions and three minor league rehab starts specifically so he could build back his strength.

“This is not how I wanted to come back,” he said. “The reason I didn’t want to come back early was to put pressure on the bullpen, and tonight that’s what I did. So that’s disappointing.”

A stacked Blue Jays club took full advantage of the weakened Patterson, scoring one run in the first, two more in the second and then two more in the third to open a comfortable lead.

Patterson (1-2) took the mound for the fourth, but following his warm-ups was greeted by catcher Robert Fick, who sensed something was wrong. Only two pitches into the inning, Fick was back at the mound, joined this time by pitching coach Randy St. Claire and head trainer Tim Abraham. After a brief discussion, St. Claire signaled to the bullpen, and Patterson made the slow walk back to the dugout and straight up the tunnel.

Patterson has spent time on the DL in each of the last four seasons and is perhaps building a reputation as a “soft” pitcher, but Robinson said he’s not concerned about that.

“I don’t ever question anyone’s abilities if they say they’re hurt,” the manager said. “I take them at their word. I know if John could go out there, he would go out there. I don’t question him, and I hope no one on this ballclub questions him.”

The Nationals did their best to try to overcome Patterson’s brief outing, but they were no match for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay. The 2003 American League Cy Young Award winner allowed just two hits through the game’s first five innings: both home runs by Marlon Anderson.

Washington finally knocked Halladay (10-2) from the game in the seventh with three straight doubles, but by then it was too late. Robinson’s slightly reconfigured lineup — with Jose Guillen and Brian Schneider benched in favor of Daryle Ward and Fick — couldn’t produce enough offense to make up for the poor pitching.

So the Nationals boarded their charter late last night and headed back to the District, hoping a 10-game homestand heading into the All-Star break will be the remedy for all that ails them.

“We’re just going to keep playing hard and playing as a team,” Fick said. “That’s all Frank can ask. We’re all professionals here. We’re getting paid to do this, and we’ve got to show up tomorrow.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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