Sunday, April 16, 2006

MIAMI — As bad as the last two weeks have been for the Washington Nationals, there are still occasional reminders that not everything is wrong with this downtrodden club.

They just have been too few and far between to date.

Not last night. When John Patterson struck out 13 Florida Marlins batters en route to a 2-1 victory, it allowed the Nationals and their frustrated fans to remember, if only briefly, that not all hope is lost. Whatever happens this season, Washington can take solace in the fact that Patterson will be pitching every fifth day.

And if he keeps pitching like this — allowing one run on three hits over eight spectacular innings while matching his career high in strikeouts — the Nationals (3-9) actually might have a chance to win a few ballgames.

“I can’t emphasize how badly we needed that,” said manager Frank Robinson, whose club snapped a six-game losing streak. “And it came at the right time.”

Said Patterson: “It was a big game for everybody tonight. We needed that.”

Of course, Patterson’s effort last night would not have been enough without help from closer Chad Cordero, left fielder Alfonso Soriano and second baseman Brendan Harris.

Soriano capped Patterson’s evening by gunning down pinch-hitter Wes Helms trying to stretch a base hit off the left-field wall into a double in the eighth. One inning later, Cordero came on to record his long-awaited first save of the season, one that would not have been possible without Harris’ fully extended grab of Josh Willingham’s liner with two outs and two on.

“I think I’m going to have to go out and buy him a dinner,” Cordero said of Harris, who was filling in at second while Jose Vidro recovers from a hamstring injury.

Said Harris of his game-saving catch: “Luckily, I timed it right at the peak of my jump. That was about as high as I was going to get.”

Harris was speaking in the literal sense, but he might well have been referring figuratively to Patterson’s pitching performance. It’s hard to imagine the tall right-hander being any higher than he was in this one.

The Nationals hadn’t seen this side of Patterson yet this season; he gave up a combined seven runs in 10 innings through his first two starts. But he was coming off an outstanding spring, and it figured to be only a matter of time before he put it all together in a regular-season game.

From the start, it was obvious Patterson (1-0) was in top form. He struck out six of the first seven batters he faced, five of them on called third strikes, several of them on what Marlins cleanup hitter Mike Jacobs referred to as a “Bugs Bunny curveball.”

If those sharp-breaking benders weren’t a sign the right-hander was in a groove, it’s hard to imagine what would have been.

“When I came to the ballpark today, I had a feeling,” he said. “I don’t mean that to sound cocky or anything, but I had a good feeling today. I was real relaxed. I felt good.”

Patterson remained perfect through four innings, recording eight strikeouts in that stretch.

Willingham finally broke up the no-hitter with one out in the fifth, launching a double off the out-of-town scoreboard in left field. Moments later, Chris Aguila doubled to right, just past the reach of Marlon Byrd. Willingham scored, and Patterson suddenly faced a 1-0 deficit.

The Nationals’ offense hadn’t exactly done much to support the team’s starter. Despite putting three men on base in the first, they failed to score. When Soriano was caught stealing in the sixth, he became the third of four Washington players in the game to get thrown out on the bases. And despite drawing 10 walks off Florida pitching, they still only managed to score two runs.

“With us right now,” Robinson said, “you could give us 20 walks, and it would still be a 2-1 game.”

Finally, in the sixth, they broke through to score in most unusual fashion. With Nick Johnson on the move from first base, Ryan Zimmerman tapped a slow roller down the line. Marlins lefty Scott Olsen picked up the ball, but his throw to first bounced in the dirt and rolled well past the bag. Johnson kept running, waved around by third-base coach Tony Beasley, and wound up scoring on the error to tie the game.

Minutes later, Royce Clayton clubbed a double down the left-field line, scoring Zimmerman with Washington’s second run (though Harris was easily gunned down at the plate trying to score).

The rest was up to Patterson. He retired nine straight from the fifth through the eighth innings, capped with his 13th strikeout. That matched his career best, set in August against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And even though Patterson surrendered a two-out drive to pinch-hitter Wes Helms off the left-field wall, Soriano was right there to pick him up. Washington’s second baseman-turned-outfielder fired a strike to second to nail Helms for his team-high second outfield assist.

“The last two days, I’ve been working on my throws,” Soriano said. “I didn’t know how to throw like an outfielder. … I’m happy because Patterson threw a great game.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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