- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

If someone had predicted a month ago that the ace of the Washington Nationals pitching staff would have overcome nagging injuries to his forearm and shoulder to post an ERA under 3.00, it would have been considered a pleasant surprise, though not totally unexpected.

Of course, most would have assumed the aforementioned ace’s name was John Patterson, not Shawn Hill.

The times, they are a changin’ in the Nationals rotation. Hill is pitching like a future Cy Young Award winner, while Patterson is pitching like the least effective hurler on the club.

The latter’s struggles have been well-documented. Still recovering from last summer’s surgery to repair an impinged nerve in his right elbow, Patterson has yet to regain his velocity, command and stamina, and it’s showing on the mound.

All these physical issues have wreaked havoc with Patterson’s psyche. He might as well conduct his postgame interviews while laying on the clubhouse sofa because each one sounds like a 50-minute session with a therapist.

And right now, the 29-year-old right-hander sounds resigned to his fate. Following an April 19 loss to the Phillies, he said he was having “to swallow a lot of pride.” Six days later, he gave up six runs in 51/3 innings in another loss to the Phillies and took solace in the fact that “overall, it was better than it’s been.”

Is that kind of resignation what the Nationals are looking for out of their expected ace?

On the other end of the spectrum, Hill is enjoying a breakthrough April, one that has caused team officials to begin to wonder whether he might just be the future ace of this staff, not Patterson.

It’s not just the way Hill has pitched on the mound, though that’s been spectacular enough. Perhaps more impressive has been Hill’s attitude throughout. He’s been battling an irritated nerve in his right forearm (he insists it’s nothing like Patterson’s nerve problem from last year), and in his most recent start he overcame the left shoulder he bruised in his previous start against the Marlins.

All the 25-year-old allowed was two runs and four hits in becoming the first member of the Nationals’ staff to pitch into the ninth inning. Reason to crow afterward? Hardly. He was still kicking himself for walking the leadoff hitter in the ninth, preventing his shot at a complete game.

It would be easy for Hill to declare himself here to stay, but he refuses to do that.

“I can do it for three, four starts last year, and I’ve had a good month so far,” he said after his last start. “But if I go out and have five bad months, then I’m not doing a whole lot for myself.”

Let’s compare and contrast. Patterson doesn’t have his best stuff, yet he’s finding positives in six-run outings. Hill is having the best month of his career, yet he’s still not satisfied.

It’s plenty early in the season, and surely there’s much left to play out over the next five months. But at this stage, it might not be inappropriate to speculate where these two pitchers’ careers are headed.

Hill looks like he’s on his way to a productive career with the Nationals, perhaps as the club’s eventual No. 1 starter.

Patterson? It’s tougher to say. Since his dynamite 2005 performance, he has been considered a big part of this franchise’s future. But so was another strong-armed right-hander who tried to come back from arm injuries and ultimately was declared a lost cause.

Could John Patterson become the next Tony Armas? The Nationals only can hope not.

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