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Patterson continues impressive spring

Patterson continues impressive spring

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Sixty miles southwest of where Washington's designated Opening Night starter expressed doubts he'd be able to answer that bell, John Patterson took a significant step toward proving able to assume that honor.

Patterson blanked the Braves over three innings in the Nationals' 2-2 tie Tuesday night, allowing three hits, striking out three and pitching out of a couple of jams.

This came a few hours after Shawn Hill played a little catch in Viera, then talked about little need to rush back from a tight forearm episode in time to keep his March 30 date in the capital with Atlanta.

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"That's going to be a big day. It'll be very important for the city of Washington," Patterson said of the debut game in new Nationals Park. "I would love to be in that situation, and it'd be a great honor to earn that."

Patterson threw himself into that competition Tuesday night, when he hit his target of 60 pitches. The only downside was that he used them up in three innings, not the four expected.

"I'd like to sit down, get up as many times as I can, but getting to the pitches is more important," he said.

Most impressively, Patterson could coax the same fastball out of his twice-operated-on right arm in the third as he had in the first. Showing an ability to maintain his stuff is key to gaining his manager's confidence.

Patterson's best fastball registered 88 mph in the first. Fifty-some pitches later, he was still hitting 86 mph.

"Obviously, it's going to take him some time to get it back to where he was, at 90-92 [mph]," said manager Manny Acta. "He's coming around.

"We need him to be able to make 90-plus pitches. Once he passes that test, he'll be ready to go. I don't see why not [considering him a possibility for the opener]."

Patterson's finest moment came in the third. Kelly Johnson, who led off with a single, stole second as Yunel Escobar struck out. Then, with a 1-0 lead and the tying run in scoring position, Patterson retired Chipper Jones (grounder to second) and Mark Teixeira (pop up to short) on meek blows.

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While starting the first regular-season game in Nationals Park would be a unique distinction, it would not be Patterson's first Opening Day assignment. He pitched the Nats' 2007 opener -- and a month later was back on the injury treadmill that has ruined his last two seasons.

Among forearm and elbow surgeries, tendinitis, inflammation and some exotic Canadian treatments, Patterson has managed only 15 starts, two wins and 72 innings the last two seasons.

Tuesday offered another indication that his time may be coming around again.

"I felt good -- stronger than the last time. I made all my pitches, and I was able to throw them for strikes," Patterson said. "I was also more comfortable with my cutter; that's a pitch I hadn't thrown well before."

The Nationals still profess patience for a guy who had been consistently near-dominant in 2005. Despite posting only nine wins that season, Patterson logged nearly 200 innings with a sharp 3.13 ERA in his 31 starts.

"It may be May or June before he's back to what he was before," Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. "Now it's just more important to see that good arm action. That tells you where he is at.

"It takes time to build up the arm strength."

Patterson's agenda calls for him to step up to 70-75 pitches his next time out. Right now, that's a more important number than any radar reading.

"If I was obsessing about the speed, I'd be out there trying to throw the ball through a wall," he said. "But I'm just pitching with what I've got, until the arm strength comes."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }