- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Manager Manny Acta, general manager Jim Bowden, assistant general manager Bob Boone, special assistant Jose Rijo and pitching coach Randy St. Claire stood along a wall behind the row of mounds at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex.

All had eyes affixed on Shawn Hill as the right-hander went through his first six-minute bullpen session of camp, his first in front of the club’s top brass since having surgery on both his left shoulder and right elbow last fall.

Tomorrow, that same group will watch John Patterson toe the same slab at Carl Barger Complex, hoping to see equally encouraging signs in his first official throwing session since having surgery to repair a damaged nerve in his arm.

Thus will begin a six-week process to determine whether Hill and Patterson, two right-handers high on talent but saddled by injuries, finally are healthy and ready to become mainstays atop a Nationals’ starting rotation that has lacked a legitimate ace since arriving in town three years ago.

“We don’t have an ace,” Acta said. “My description of an ace might be different than yours or somebody else’s. To me, an ace is somebody that every five days, you know that the other team is aware that guy is going. An ace to me is a guy that, when he’s not down to injuries and stuff, is a guaranteed 15- to 20-game winner. Roy Oswalt. Jake Peavy. Johan Santana. Those are aces to me.”

His team may not have an ace today, but Acta is quick to point out either Patterson or Hill (or both) could develop into one, with one huge caveat: Each must stay healthy for the first time in his career.

“It is a fact: [Shawn] and John haven’t been able to pitch a full season in the big leagues where you can make the right assessment about them other than the 2005 season for John. You can say the same thing for a lot of guys in the game that have the stuff but just haven’t been able to stay healthy. I mean, you’re not an ace if you pitch a month and a half or two months.”

The Nationals, though, are cautiously optimistic that both Hill and Patterson will make it through the entire 2008 season intact. And if that’s the case, they expect big results.

“If John comes back to his ‘05 form, there’s your ace,” teammate Jason Bergmann said. “He’s your best pitcher. And Shawn, as long as he can stay healthy, is a very good complement.”

At their best, Patterson and Hill are dominant pitchers. Patterson proved that during his breakthrough 2005 campaign, in which he posted a 3.13 ERA and struck out 185 batters in 1981/3 innings. Hill showed flashes of similar dominance last season, maintaining a sub-3.00 ERA until a couple of poor starts in late September.

But that tells only part of each pitcher’s story. Patterson, 30, hasn’t been the same since that 2005 season, making only 15 combined starts the last two years while battling a variety of nerve ailments in his throwing arm that required two surgical procedures and countless moments of frustration.

Team officials seriously considered “nontendering” Patterson over the winter and cutting him loose. Bowden, though, couldn’t forget the right-hander’s brilliance in 2005 and ultimately re-signed him for $850,000 to give him one more chance to realize his potential.

“That’s why he’s here — because I can’t get ‘05 out of my brain,” Bowden said.

Thus far, Patterson is justifying the GM’s decision. Since his latest surgery in September to decompress his right ulnar nerve, he has rediscovered his previous form. He throws without pain or discomfort. He has regained his velocity. And he has noticed a return of the “hop” in his fastballs, a critical (and pleasing) development in his mind.

“I feel like me,” Patterson said. “I can just throw the baseball and be happy and be excited with what my plans are for tomorrow instead of being in pain. It’s exciting. It’s fun. I’m enjoying having the baseball in my hand.”

Hill, too, feels fully healthy for the first time since he injured his left shoulder diving awkwardly into third base last April. That injury threw off his pitching mechanics, leading to strain on a right elbow that had major reconstructive surgery in 2004.

The Nationals are being cautious with the 26-year-old sinkerballer, not wanting to rush him back. Yesterday he was told to stop his bullpen session at the six-minute mark while other pitchers continued for two more minutes.

But those are mere precautions, and Hill is confident he will be free to go all-out by the time exhibition games start in two weeks. That, he hopes, will be a precursor to something he has been shooting for his entire professional career: a full, injury-free season.

“Ideally, I’d like to go 200-plus [innings],” Hill said. “If I can stay healthy and things go well, that would be my goal. We’ll see if it happens or not, but yeah, that’s definitely something that’s bugged me for a while.”

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