Friday, September 16, 2005

SAN DIEGO — By the time the fifth inning rolled around at Petco Park last night, the Washington Nationals knew the task at hand.

The out-of-town scoreboard in right field showed the wild-card leading Houston Astros had rallied to beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the bottom of the ninth, so nothing short of a Nationals victory over the San Diego Padres would suffice.

As manager Frank Robinson noted earlier in the afternoon, with so many teams so tightly packed in this down-to-the-wire race, “it makes it difficult to gain ground. It all comes down to us. We have to win our games.”

And who better to deliver in a must-win situation than John Patterson?

The man who would be Nationals ace was back to playing the part last night. Eight days removed from his worst outing of the year and the sinus infection that in part made it possible, Patterson out-dueled Padres ace Jake Peavy in a 5-1 victory before a crowd of 38,480.

With a standout, complete-game three-hitter on a cool Friday night in San Diego, Patterson (9-5) helped the Nationals keep pace in the wild-card race. They remain 2-1/2 games behind the Astros, with the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins sandwiched in between.

Washington (77-71) finds itself in such a position because it has rediscovered its old form during a four-game winning streak that matches its longest since the All-Star break. Good pitching and clutch hitting: That’s how this team won games back in May and June, and that’s how it’s winning games in September.

Patterson accounted for the pitching half of the equation, earning his first win since Aug. 24. The clutch hitting, as was so often the case earlier this year, came from whomever found himself at the plate at the right moment.

Last night, that was none other than Cristian Guzman, whose two-out, two-run double off Peavy (12-7) in the fifth gave the Nationals the lead and provided all the offense they needed.

It’s possible Guzman has a more significant hit on his resume this year, but it’s hard to think of one.

And if that wasn’t enough, the now .207-hitting shortstop added a run-scoring triple in the ninth to make it 5-1 and [-] with a save situation now obsolete — allow Patterson a shot at his second career complete game.

It was a remarkable performance from the right-hander, given that no one knew what to expect from him in his first appearance since getting knocked out by his illness. Robinson admitted his concerns beforehand, saying he would be happy just to get six innings from the right-hander.

“He should be all right, but is he full strength?” Robinson asked. “I’d have to say probably not.”

If Patterson wasn’t 100 percent, he sure hid it well. He surrendered a solo homer to Ramon Hernandez in the first but settled into a groove after that. Sean Burroughs singled in the second, and Robert Fick did likewise in the fifth, but that was all the Padres could muster.

Peavy, likewise, was untouchable early, facing the minimum over the game’s first four innings. But with one little slip-up in the fifth, he found himself trailing — a rarity for the emerging young ace.

The Nationals appeared to have run themselves out of a potential rally, with Nick Johnson gunned down on a botched hit-and-run. But Vinny Castilla followed with a two-out single up the middle, and Gary Bennett drew a five-pitch walk.

Up came Guzman, poster child for Washington’s offensive futility but riding something of a hot streak into this series (12 for his last 37). Hot streak or not, this wasn’t exactly Guzman’s kind of situation. His season average with two outs and runners in scoring position? .106.

But when he crushed Peavy’s first pitch to center field for a two-run double, none of that mattered. Guzman’s biggest hit in some time gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead, gave the much-maligned shortstop reason to smile and a steamed Peavy reason to scream at himself.

And the Nationals weren’t done terrorizing Peavy. They loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth, then pushed two more runs across when Burroughs fielded Preston Wilson’s high chopper to third and threw wild to first. Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen came around to score, and suddenly Patterson had a comfortable 4-1 lead to work with.

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