By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
PHILADELPHIA, April 26 -- It isn't Shawn Hill's nature to look at his outing from Thursday, consider the eight innings in which he fairly dominated the Philadelphia Phillies and wallow in the glory. Yes, Hill's performance defined the Washington Nationals' 4-2 victory. Indeed, it stopped a four-game losing streak and was the club's best start of the season for a pitcher.
Hill's reaction? "I'm more disappointed in the fact that I walked that guy, if anything," he said.
That guy would be Shane Victorino, leading off the ninth inning, one of the very few batters Hill allowed to get away from him all day.
With that, Manager Manny Acta came in to replace Hill with closer Chad Cordero, who allowed a ball to be hit up against the fence, but not over it, and thus secured his second save of the year, providing himself with one heaping helping of badly needed confidence.
"It feels real good, especially after the way Shawn went out there," Cordero said. "He pitched his guts out."
That would be the standard take on Thursday afternoon's events at Citizens Bank Park, where Hill became the first Nationals pitcher to complete eight innings, where he allowed three singles and Aaron Rowand's solo homer, where he faced 29 men and went to a 2-0 count on only three of them. The Nationals beamed about Hill's performance in beating a more highly touted prospect, Phillies lefty Cole Hamels.
"Terrific," Acta said.
"You want to play behind a guy who's throwing like that," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "You know he's going to get up there, get the ball and throw strikes."
They are no-brainer assessments, because Hill worked quickly and efficiently, needing only 94 pitches to get through eight innings (he finished with 99). He relied on a sinker that is becoming the most dazzling pitch on Washington's staff. He shrugged off a sore left shoulder suffered Saturday when he dove back into third base in Florida, and said a finicky right forearm has been calmed down with medication. He is 2-2 with 2.76 ERA, and Acta believes he can turn out such performances "for a long time."
Hill, true to form, won't bite.
"I can do it for three, four starts last year, and I've had a good month so far," he said. "But if I go out and have five bad months, then I'm not doing a whole lot for myself."
Hill doesn't believe such a stance is pessimistic. He prefers to think of himself as a perfectionist. Growing up in Ontario, he would ask coaches not to praise him when he did well, but instead to find the flaw.
"I'm very harsh on myself," Hill said. "That's the way I've been. It's the way I kind of like it. I prefer if I'm going well, still come tell me what I did wrong."
For anyone not named Hill, that was a difficult task Thursday. Hill's sinker has such movement that when he can place it on both sides of the plate he rarely has to throw his other pitches. In the third, he threw one to Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, hitting left-handed, with a 1-2 count. The ball started in toward Rollins's body, but then darted hard back over the plate. Rollins couldn't lift his bat, and he was called out on strikes.
"For a lefty, you have pitches coming at your front hip," catcher Brian Schneider said, "and it's hard to tell yourself, 'Oh, swing.' "
The truest assessment of such a pitch, and how it factored into such a performance, comes from the opposition. The Phillies were wowed.
"He's probably got one of the best sinkers in the league, between him and Brandon Webb," said Rowand, introducing the reigning National League Cy Young award winner into the conversation. "He throws it hard. He hits his spots with it. He'll backdoor it on righties. He gave us fits today."
And then, when he walked Pat Burrell to lead off the eighth, he gave himself fits. The Nationals had seized a 4-0 lead on Dmitri Young's solo homer in the fourth and a three-run sixth that ended Hamels's day. Rowand's homer, on a sinker that Hill called a "bad pitch," got the Phillies a run.
So after the walk to Victorino in the ninth, Acta pulled Hill. On came Cordero, who has had fits of his own. But as he worked through those problems, Cordero realized he was relying too much on his slider, not enough on his fastball.
"That's what got me to where I am today," Cordero said.
So he went back to it Thursday. Chase Utley hit a fly ball to the warning track in center, but Church caught it. Ryan Howard followed with a double down the line, and Burrell hit a sacrifice fly. But when he needed to, Cordero struck out Wes Helms with a fastball to end it, preserving a brilliant win for Hill -- though he probably wouldn't assess it that way himself.