Thursday, September 22, 2005

Of all the breakout performances at RFK Stadium this season, perhaps none has been appreciated by fans as much as John Patterson’s emergence from fill-in No. 5 starter to presumed ace of the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff.

Few men in a Nationals uniform — pitchers or position players — have brought the home crowd to its feet as regularly as Patterson has this year.

But lest anyone proclaim the big right-hander a guaranteed star for years to come, it should be noted Patterson isn’t quite there yet, a fact that was apparent to the crowd of 32,076 at last night’s 5-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

For all his accomplishments this season, he still has walked away victorious only nine times in 29 outings. That’s in no small part because of the Nationals’ general lack of offense, but there are some within the organization who believe Patterson could have willed himself to a couple more wins if he had a better presence on the mound.

“I need to see him mentally hold together,” manager Frank Robinson said, even before Patterson (9-6) went out and surrendered five runs and 10 hits in seven innings. “I guess what I’m saying is I want to see the mental toughness from him that separates the good pitchers from the so-so pitchers.”

Patterson was just so-so last night in his failed attempt to reach 10 wins for the first time in his career, even if he refused to get down on himself.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a month,” he said. “I really felt good tonight. Just not a lot went my way.”

It certainly didn’t help matters that Patterson had to face Barry Bonds in his first inning of work. The Giants slugger belted a 1-1 cut fastball on the inside corner into the right-field bullpen for his fourth home run in as many games and the 707th of his remarkable career.

“It was going to be a ball,” Patterson said. “I don’t know how he hit it. We were all talking about it when we came into the dugout. He’s Barry Bonds. I don’t know how he hit it.”

With 11 games to play this season, Bonds sits just seven homers shy of Babe Ruth for second-place in baseball’s all-time record book. He won’t be in the Giants lineup this afternoon, but could he still catch the Babe by the end of next week?

“It’s not a task beyond his reach,” Robinson said. “He is capable of doing that.”

Patterson did get his revenge against Bonds — he struck him out his next two times at the plate, joining Roger Clemens and Odalis Perez as the only pitchers to get him twice in the same game since 2003.

But Bonds’ two-run homer alone would have been enough to send the Nationals (77-75) to their fourth straight loss. Washington managed all of five hits off Giants starter Brad Hennessey and relievers Scott Eyre and Armando Benitez and by day’s end had fallen six games behind the Houston Astros in the wild-card race.

“It would take a miracle at this point,” Patterson said.

With his club all but mathematically eliminated, Robinson might have been tempted to give some of his regulars the night off in favor of the handful of potentially impact young players on the expanded roster.

That day still likely will come, just not yet. Robinson said he probably will stick with his usual starters through the weekend before turning things over to the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Rick Short and others on occasion.

The manager has his reasons. Though the Nationals’ chances of catching the Astros are growing slimmer by the day, they technically remain alive.

And as Robinson pointed out, there are still goals to accomplish over the final two weeks. Washington’s lead over the New York Mets is just 11/2 games, and a collapse down the stretch could turn this once-contending team into a last-place club if it’s not careful.

Washington also needs to finish 5-5 to ensure a winning record, a significant accomplishment for a team that lost 95 games a year ago.

“Yeah, you want to play for a winning record or for fourth place, but you don’t need to tell people to play harder to get that,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We’re going to play hard every day out. At the end of the year, our record’s going to be what it is. Nobody in here is going to give up.”

The regular eight that Robinson fielded last night against Hennessey didn’t exactly have much success against the right-hander with seven career victories and a 5.18 ERA. His lone mistake wasn’t even his fault: With two outs and a runner on third in the second, Cristian Guzman hit a tapper toward shortstop and beat Omar Vizquel’s throw, allowing Washington’s only run to score.

That was the closest Hennessey came to breaking, though. He didn’t allow another hit before getting lifted with two outs in the eighth.

“When you have guys hitting third and fourth in your lineup and not producing, there’s no excuse,” said cleanup hitter Jose Guillen (0-for-4 with two strikeouts). “I’ve failed when the team needed me.”

Guillen wasn’t the only one. Hennessey practically outproduced the Nationals’ offense on his own. An accomplished hitter who played shortstop at Youngstown State, he doubled and scored in the fifth, then launched a homer off Patterson to lead off the seventh.

“I took for granted that he was going to take the first pitch of the inning,” Patterson said. “He didn’t, and he hit a home run. It was his night.”

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