- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

SAN DIEGO — Throughout the most trying April of his major league career, John Patterson kept trying to insist to himself that things would get better. They had to because they certainly couldn’t get any worse.

Perhaps more than anyone else on the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff, Patterson’s success with his arm is predicated on the state of his head. A horrid first month to the season had wreaked havoc with the right-hander’s mind, but when he departed last night’s game at Petco Park, he looked like he was oozing confidence for the first time in a long time.

Patterson had good reason for that. With six standout innings against the San Diego Padres, he authored far-and-away his best outing of the year and emerged with a sorely needed 3-2 victory before a crowd of 19,769.

“It’s great to get a win and kind of get the monkey off my back,” he said. “We needed a win, so that was good. But I’ve got a long way to go.”

Patterson’s first win since April 15, 2006, came on a night the Nationals managed to squeeze out three runs off San Diego ace Jake Peavy despite striking out 10 times and on a night the beleaguered Washington bullpen managed to record nine outs without blowing a lead.

Relievers Saul Rivera, Ray King, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero inherited a 3-1 lead and preserved it, though not without some tense moments.

King, making his first appearance since a 15-day disabled list stint with left shoulder tendinitis, retired four batters but surrendered a solo homer to Josh Bard in the eighth. Rauch, though, finished off that inning, and Cordero came on get three flyouts in the ninth to earn his fourth save in seven tries.

Thus, the Nationals (9-17) closed out a disappointing April with one of their more impressive wins of the young season, if for no reason other than the fact they beat one of baseball’s best hurlers.

“We beat a tough hombre out there,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s one of the toughest guys to beat, and even if we didn’t do as much damage as we wanted, we won.”

If ever a team went into a ballgame believing it had a legitimate chance to be on the wrong end of some historic pitching feat, this was it. Peavy was the National League’s most dominant starter in April and was coming off an awe-inspiring performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks, in which the right-hander struck out 16 batters over seven spectacular innings and at one point whiffed nine in a row.

So when the Nationals, owners of the league’s least-productive offense, came out and watched as Peavy blew away Felipe Lopez, Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Zimmerman in order to open the first, the stage appeared to be set for something dramatic.

But it never came to pass, and for that, the Nationals can thank Ryan Church, who took his first opportunity to hit cleanup and seized it. Church led off the second with a drive to center, a double that put him in prime position to score, which he did after an Austin Kearns fly out and a Dmitri Young groundout.

Two innings later, Church made his second big contribution of the night, not with his bat but with his legs and his head. After getting plunked on the left shin by a two-out Peavy fastball, he astutely realized the Padres hurler forgot to pitch out of the stretch to the next batter. So as Peavy (3-1) went through his long, slow delivery, Church bolted for second and wound up with a stand-up stolen base.

“It was weird, because I kind of wanted to call timeout and say, ‘Hey, dude, you’re about to go into the windup and I’m on first base,’” Church said. “But I’ll take it. … That’s the easiest stolen base I’ve ever had.”

The crowd grumbled over Peavy’s inexplicable mistake, hoping it wouldn’t come back to haunt the home team, but that was wishful thinking. Kearns immediately sent a soft single into center field, and Church scored easily from second to give Washington a 2-1 lead. Rookie Kory Casto, recalled from Class AAA Columbus earlier in the day, added a key insurance run in the seventh with an RBI double to right.

With lead in hand, Patterson was able to go to work, pitching with the kind of poise that hadn’t been seen out of the Nationals’ Opening Day starter all month. His only mistake came with two outs in the third, when he left a 1-1 fastball up to Terrmel Sledge and the Padres leadoff man (and ex-National) lofted it high and deep into the right-field stands for a solo homer.

Otherwise, Patterson (1-4) pitched like his old self. He got ahead of hitters, reached 90 mph on the radar gun for the first time all season and threw breaking balls with bite.

And he saved his best for last. After putting himself into a sixth-inning jam — loading the bases with one out — Patterson dug deep and came through when he needed to most. He got Bard to hit a shallow fly ball to right, not deep enough to score the tying run. Then he got Khalil Greene to hit the first pitch he saw to Zimmerman, who easily stepped on third base to end the inning and maintain Washington’s lead.

On the mound, Patterson pumped his fist and pounded his glove. After a frustrating month that tested his gumption like perhaps no previous one in his career, this felt like a turning point.

“He had a little bit more giddy-up,” Acta said. “His body language was a lot better today.”

For the first time all season, the would-be ace of the Nationals’ staff left a game feeling good about himself.

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