By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007
KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 7 -- The thought of needing a stopper in the Grapefruit League, where wins and losses hardly matter, is a bit absurd. But the Washington Nationals entered Wednesday's game against Houston with a staff ERA of 7.63, and the whole experiment of auditioning for four open spots in the rotation was beginning to have daunting overtones for the regular season.
With that, right-hander Shawn Hill delivered a rare treat for the Nationals -- an encouraging performance from a starter. Hill threw three innings in the Nationals' 5-2 loss to the Astros, allowing one run on three hits, walking none and striking out two. He has now allowed one earned run in his five innings of work over two spring starts. "If I get content with what I've done, then you could dig yourself a hole," he said.
Hill and catcher Brian Schneider stuck exclusively with his sinking fastball in the first inning, when Hill allowed two hits, including Lance Berkman's RBI single. But after Morgan Ensberg led off the second with a single, Hill retired the last six men he faced, mixing in his curveball.
"Guys need to go out there and start really opening some eyes if they're going to make the team," Schneider said. "It's wide open, like everyone knows, so it's time for whoever it is to step it up."
Manager Manny Acta has no doubt that, if Hill's healthy, he will. He faced a lineup that was filled with Houston's regulars Wednesday.
"I have so much confidence in this kid," Acta said, "that if he's healthy, I really don't care what lineup is out there."Guzman at Short
Cristian Guzman played three innings of shortstop in the "B" game back in Viera, Fla., his first action in the field this spring. He's scheduled to serve as the designated hitter Thursday, and the team will continue to "take it easy with him," as Acta said, by not playing him in the field on consecutive days for now. . . .
Acta spent 16 years in the Astros' organization, from the time he was signed as a teenager until he left to become the third base coach of the Montreal Expos in 2002. "I owe to them everything," he said. He spent most of the pregame time Wednesday hugging Astros coaches, minor league instructors and even groundskeepers. . . .
DH Alex Escobar (tightness in his left quadriceps) was scratched in favor of Kory Casto. . . . Schneider went 2 for 3 and is now 4 for 7 on the spring.
Pitchers of the Day Reliever Chris Schroder returned from Oklahoma, where he attended the funeral of his grandmother, to throw two scoreless innings, walking one. Saul Rivera allowed homers to Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg in the sixth. Up Next vs. Astros at Viera, 1:05 p.m.