- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — John Patterson’s much-anticipated return to the mound against big league competition looked impressive by the numbers.

In three innings against the Atlanta Braves last night, the Washington Nationals right-hander did not allow a run and did not walk a batter. He surrendered three singles and recorded three strikeouts for the Nationals.

Just what Patterson and the Nationals were looking for? Not entirely. Though the end result looked good, Patterson admittedly labored to make it through those three innings. He reached his predetermined limit of 60 pitches without making it to the fourth inning as originally planned.

“I’d love to sit down and get up as many times as I can, but at this point I don’t think it really matters,” he said. “It’s getting to those pitch limits and going throughout my day and getting my full day in.”

Still, the Nationals are pleased to see Patterson on the mound and healthy after two seasons of arm injuries. The 30-year-old pitcher hasn’t regained his full velocity — his fastball last night consistently registered between 85 and 87 mph — but his mechanics were good, and his breaking balls were sharp, particularly a 3-2 curveball that caught slugger Mark Teixeira looking in the bottom of the first.

“Obviously his velocity is not going to be back to where it was a couple years ago right away,” manager Manny Acta said. “All we need is for him to have the extension and the freedom to locate and have command. That’s an indication that at least he’s healthy. He doesn’t have to come back and be throwing 92, 93 for us to make that type of decision on him.”

A thunderstorm washed out Patterson’s last scheduled start, so he was forced to get some work the following day in a minor league game. He remains on pace to start Washington’s second game of the season (March 31 at Philadelphia), though Acta said he still could be bumped ahead to pitch on Opening Night at Nationals Park.

Hip sidelines Zimmerman

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman came out of last night’s game early after injuring his right hip sliding into home plate in the sixth inning. He was diagnosed with right hip flexor tightness and said he may need to take a couple of days off for precautionary reasons.

“I could be playing right now if I had to,” Zimmerman said. “But there’s no reason to risk it or anything like that. Just treat it for a couple of days and I’ll be ready to roll.”

Rotation alignment

Though Shawn Hill likely won’t be ready to pitch on Opening Night, the Nationals should manage without their potential ace through the season’s first two weeks.

General manager Jim Bowden said yesterday the team could start the season with only four starting pitchers. The Nationals have a pair of off-days in early April, and though they play on six consecutive days from April 2 to 7, they could get by with their Nos. 3 and 4 starters coming back on short rest.

“With our schedule at the beginning of the year, there’s only a need for four starters for the first couple weeks of April,” Bowden said.

Thus, Hill could return as the No. 5 starter April 13, giving him an extra two weeks to build up his arm strength. The right-hander, who is battling forearm tightness, played catch yesterday from 60 feet and reported no pain. He’s scheduled to throw again tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Odalis Perez flew to the Dominican Republic last night and is scheduled to acquire his work visa today, clearing the way for the left-hander to pitch in big league camp the rest of spring training.

Perez, expected to earn a spot in Washington’s rotation, made two previous starts in accelerated minor league games. Team officials were pleased with what they saw from the 30-year-old in those two games but want to see how he does now against better talent.

“It doesn’t take away how well he pitched over there,” Bowden said. “But I like him facing big league hitters every time. There’s a little bit more riding on every pitch and every at-bat.”

Extra bases

Utilityman Rob Mackowiak, who hasn’t played since March 1 because of residual effects of his offseason sports hernia surgery, is expected to be ready to appear in games this weekend. …

With only four starters in the Opening Day rotation, Bowden said the team likely will open the year with a seven-man bullpen.

Chat live with Mark Zuckerman on Wednesday at 1 p.m.

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