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Dreary start foreshadows a long, long year at RFK

April 3, 2007 12:35 am

WASHINGTON--Evaluating a baseball team after opening day is like reviewing a movie based on the opening credits. Still, yesterday's miserable debut suggests the 2007 Washington Nationals may be as bad as advertised, a product that even Pauly Shore might turn down.

"With so much doubt in the air, it's easy to say, 'I told you so,'" said starting pitcher John Patterson, who looked like anything but an ace in a 9-2 loss to the Florida Marlins. "We can't pay attention to that."

But it may be impossible not to dwell on a day when Patterson was shelled and two starters (shortstop Cristian Guzman and center fielder Nook Logan) left the game with injuries. Other than the bright sunlight that flooded RFK Stadium, "there were not a lot of positives," Patterson said.

It's enough to make the doomsayers look wise--and the most optimistic fan reach for a drink.

The only thing thinner than the Nationals' talent base is their margin for error or injury. With first baseman Nick Johnson out until July with a broken leg, they can't afford to lose any more players. But until Guzman's strained hamstring and Logan's hyperextended foot heal, there will be a lot of fans checking their rosters to learn the names of Chris Snelling and Josh Wilson.

And if the Nationals seemed confident of anything, it was that Patterson would be the best of a modest pitching staff. He shares initials and a uniform number (22) with Jim Palmer, and he's similarly tall and lanky.

But he's 29 and injury-prone, and he has yet to win more than nine games in a big-league season. At 29, Palmer (with much better support) had two World Series rings and a couple of Cy Youngs. Patterson, to this point, is nobody's ace. But the Nationals are treating him like one, because he's ostensibly the best they've got.

Catcher Brian Schneider insisted that Patterson's velocity was only a couple miles per hour short of optimum yesterday. But he was more concerned about the psyche of a makeshift No. 1 starter.

"I hope John doesn't [get depressed]," Schneider said. "He's really hard on himself."

Almost as hard as the Marlins were on him--particularly leadoff man extraordinaire Hanley Ramirez (4-for-6, four runs) and slugger Miguel Cabrera (four RBIs). Compare Patterson's struggles with the command of Florida's 25-year-old Dontrelle Willis, who pitched six strong innings--and escaped a second-and-third, no-out jam in the sixth by allowing just one run.

"He had something left in the tank," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "That's why he is what he is--he's an ace. That's why he's a No. 1."

The Marlins also have a slew of candidates to be their cleanup hitter. The honor falls to Mike Jacobs, but it just as easily could be Cabrera, Dan Uggla or Josh Willingham. Without Johnson's bat, rookie manager Manny Acta has to make do with Austin Kearns, who stranded Ryan Zimmerman at third base after his two-out triple in the first.

Acta had to look across the field yesterday with a bit of envy. The Marlins have amassed--at bargain prices--one of baseball's most solid lineups.

For less than the Nationals have shelled out for their rag-tag outfit, Gonzalez has a true leadoff hitter (NL rookie of the year Ramirez); a legitimate power hitter (Cabrera); and several young bats with punch (Uggla, Jacobs and Willingham). Florida had three of the top four finishers in last year's rookie of the year voting, with only Zimmerman crashing the party.

Three Marlins rookies hit at least 20 homers last year, and four had at least 10 pitching victories. Judging by yesterday's results, that wasn't a fluke. The Marlins are what the Nationals would like to be in a year or two.

Said Ramirez: "We're happy. We're like a brotherhood."

The Nationals are looking more like an orphanage: the tired, the poor, the castoffs. The team only a mother could love.

Yes, it's early. Said Ryan Church, who moved from left field to center after Logan's injury: "We're shooting for 161-1, baby."

He was smiling, of course. But if Patterson is truly the best pitching candidate Acta can trot out; if Johnson, Logan and Guzman are out for a while; and if the Nationals can't hit better with runners in scoring position than they did yesterday; it could be a long season indeed.

"It was just one of those days," Patterson said.

And there could be a whole lot more like it to come.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

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