An Old Farmhand Beats the Nationals

Washington's Ryan Church shows his frustration after striking out with the tying run in scoring position in the sixth inning. Former Expos minor leaguer Chris Young struck out eight in eight scoreless innings for San Diego.
Washington's Ryan Church shows his frustration after striking out with the tying run in scoring position in the sixth inning. Former Expos minor leaguer Chris Young struck out eight in eight scoreless innings for San Diego. (By Lenny Ignelzi -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

SAN DIEGO, May 1 -- In the years before the demise of the Montreal Expos, there were some infamous trades, deals so horrendous that they are still pointed to as one of the reasons the club's farm system -- now belonging to the Washington Nationals -- is just starting to recover. They dealt away Grady Sizemore to Cleveland and Jason Bay to Pittsburgh, among others, and both would fit quite nicely in the Nationals' lineup now.

Tuesday night, they saw another former Expos prospect, and not surprisingly he performed in a manner that could cause envy by the truckload. Chris Young fairly dominated the Nationals, pitching eight innings of three-hit ball for the San Diego Padres in a 3-0 victory over Washington. And who did Young beat? Why, his former teammate and roommate in the minors, Shawn Hill, who would fit nicely in a rotation with Young at his side.

"I've seen him do that," Hill said, "numerous times."

So when considering the deals made when Major League Baseball owned the Nationals, file this one, from April 2004, away: Young and a minor league catcher to Texas for backup catcher Einar Diaz and a minor league pitcher who's no longer with the organization.

That it was Young who mastered the Nationals' lineup was, by this point, just a coincidence, because it's not an exclusive club these days. Washington was shut out for the second time in three days, a trend that can't continue if the club is to remain competitive on this 10-day road trip. For all the hullabaloo about the starting rotation in the offseason and spring training, Hill's outing of 6 1/3 innings, in which he gave up three runs, was just the latest in a string of starts that has brought a collective calm to the rotation. It is the offense -- baseball's worst for the first month -- that is the problem now.

"Everyone knows we need to do a better job," catcher Brian Schneider said. "It's not acceptable, night after night, to keep saying, 'Oh, it's all right. The season's early. We're going to get out of it.' That's not acceptable. We need to get the job done now. . . . The pitching staff's doing the job for us right now. We need to get them some . . . runs."

Since April 24, the club's starters have a 2.88 ERA. But go back further than just the past week. In the first turn through the rotation, the starters -- Patterson, Hill, Matt Chico, Jerome Williams and Bergmann -- posted an 8.87 ERA, allowing opponents a .337 average. Since then, their ERA has dropped to 3.91, and opponents are hitting .227 against them. In 22 games over that time, the starters have allowed three earned runs or fewer 18 times.

"I just thought that they put too much pressure on themselves trying to prove to the whole world that they weren't as bad as everybody was making them out to be," Manager Manny Acta said. "And also the fact that every one of them except for [John] Patterson showed up to spring training not having a job, that they had to earn it, they probably thought that, 'I still got to perform or I could easily be taken out of this rotation.' "

Hill is in no such position. He is still bothered by forearm tightness, though an MRI exam two weeks ago revealed no structural damage. He aggravated a strained left shoulder Tuesday while covering first, trying to stop Dmitri Young's stray throw, but still had allowed only one run through six innings. Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff delivered an RBI triple in the seventh that drove Hill from the game, and when Oscar Robles followed with a safety squeeze that scored Kouzmanoff, the Padres led 3-0.

His assessment? Typically dour.

"I thought I threw the ball terrible, personally," Hill said after his ERA rose to 3.00.

Schneider found that evaluation ridiculous.

"I don't know how Shawn could be so critical of himself," Schneider said. "I wish he wouldn't do it, because he's just playing mind games with himself, is what he's doing. He's pitching really well, and we're just not giving him the . . . run support."

On Sunday, when the Nationals lost 1-0 to New York Mets right-hander John Maine, they had plenty of chances to put runners into scoring position, even a few to drive them in. Young hardly gave them that opportunity. Only two runners reached scoring position against him, Schneider with a two-out double in the fifth and Ronnie Belliard, who stole second with two outs in the sixth. The former Princeton basketball player used his 6-foot-10 frame to make his fastball appear as if it's thrown from, say, 50 feet 6 inches.

"It's not like a guy who's average size throwing 89-94" mph, outfielder Ryan Church said. "It's on you when he releases the ball."

Young (3-2), who once teamed with Hill at Class A Brevard County and Class AA Harrisburg, has won at least 11 games in each of the past two years, and appears headed for at least that many this season. No one in the improving Nationals' rotation can make such a claim. Had things played out differently, maybe he would be doing it in Washington.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company