Breakout players solidify contenders

Patterson, Marlins' Jones are among top surprises

Wild, Wild (nl) East

Dispatches from a division where every team is in the playoff race.

September 09, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It's a given that contending teams are built around reliable stars. Roger Clemens, Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, Pedro Martinez, you pretty much expect them to be outstanding, and they've each done their part in the five-team scramble for this year's National League wild card.

But Morgan Ensberg, Brett Myers, Todd Jones and John Patterson? Nobody thought they'd be key players in this year's playoff race. Turns out they are, each showing that breakout seasons help make winners.

Houston leads the wild-card race and Ensberg, who struggled to earn a regular job last year, leads all NL third basemen in home runs with 35. Philadelphia is in third place and Myers, whose ERA soared over 5.00 last year, is the team's top starter.

But the league has featured few bigger surprises than Patterson and Jones, as the Nationals and Marlins finished off a four-game series last night.

Patterson, 27, has traveled a long road. Drafted fifth overall in 1996, he had the look of a phenom until he injured his elbow in 2000. He made it to the big leagues in 2002 and showed flashes of talent (he struck out a batter per inning last season) but battled injuries and inconsistency.

Patterson began spring training as an afterthought, a sixth or seventh option for the rotation, but more likely, a long reliever.

When asked near the end of spring training if Patterson had shown any significant improvement, Nationals manager Frank Robinson said not really.

Only an injury to Tony Armas Jr. allowed Patterson to make a start on April 10. He didn't win but pitched a solid game (two earned runs in seven innings). Four months later, he's among the NL ERA leaders and has earned Robinson's trust.

A reporter recently asked Robinson about Patterson. "You mean `big nasty,' " the manager said with a smile.

"He's gonna have to keep us in the ballgame tonight," Robinson said before last night's game (Patterson had one of his poorest outings of the season, allowing seven runs in 4 2/3 innings).

Patterson uses a smooth motion to deliver a 93-mph fastball that he throws for strikes, a big breaking curve and an occasional changeup.

But Nationals catcher Gary Bennett said experience and health are the reasons for Patterson's breakout season.

"He always had good stuff - a great curveball, a live fastball, a change," Bennett said. "But he would make mistakes out over the plate and you can only do that for so long against major league hitters."

Now that Patterson has command of four above-average pitches, Bennett said, hitters could be in for long nights.

"Stuff-wise, barring an injury, there's no reason he couldn't do this for five, six seven years," Bennett said.

Asked what's different about Patterson, Robinson said, "Consistency and confidence."

For the Marlins, Jones is more resurrection case than breakout. Jones, 37, entered last night with the third-most saves in the NL - amazing for a journeyman who last stood out in 2000, when he saved 42 games for Detroit.

The Marlins thought Jones would be another veteran out of their bullpen, backing up Guillermo Mota, who was acquired last season to be the closer.

But Mota started the season on the disabled list and Jones, like Patterson, kept piling up good outings.

"I don't know what we would've done without him," Florida manager Jack McKeon said. "In all the years I've managed, I've never had a closer so totally prepared going into every game."

Jones comes in throwing strikes and rarely makes mistakes. He had allowed only 12 walks and two homers in 62 2/3 innings entering last night.

"He's not gonna unravel," McKeon said. "You have to beat him. He ain't going to beat himself."

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