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'Let's Go. I Just Want to Pitch.'
Plagued by Injuries, Nats' Hill Will Return to Mound in 1st Start Since May

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Perhaps if Shawn Hill hadn't undergone reconstructive elbow surgery in 2004, perhaps if he had pitched all of 2006 without arm problems, his series of mishaps and doctor's appointments and rehabilitation plans would seem more the normal course for a 26-year-old man who uses his right arm to throw a baseball 90 mph. But the facts are these: Hill hasn't thrown in a major league game since May 11, and he hasn't had a season in which he has avoided the disabled list since 2003.

"If I had never been on the DL before, it wouldn't have been as frustrating," Hill said yesterday by phone. "But the fact that I've been on the DL so much in my career, it's like: 'I'm sick and tired of this. Let's go. I just want to pitch.' "

Tonight at RFK Stadium, Hill will do just that against the Philadelphia Phillies. That the Washington Nationals right-hander is doing so with seven weeks remaining in the season is seen by his club as significant, because as Manager Manny Acta said, "As everybody here knows, Shawn is part of the future."

In eight starts to begin the year, Hill was clearly the Nationals' best starting pitcher, going 3-3 with a 2.70 ERA, showing a sinker that opposing hitters compared to the best in the National League, that of Arizona's Brandon Webb. Hill has heard his manager's high praise, but he is blocking it out.

"It's easy to say that stuff now," Hill said. "But if someone comes out and falls apart, then you have to reassess everything. I don't want to take two or three starts to get going. Hopefully, I come right out and maintain somewhere close to the numbers I was putting up before."

Hill traces his problems this season to a play on April 20 in Florida, when he rounded third base, then dove back into the bag, jamming his left shoulder. He pitched another inning, but eventually left the game. Two starts later, he aggravated the shoulder while covering first base in San Diego, diving for a ball thrown behind him by Dmitri Young.

Hill believes he altered his delivery to compensate for the balky shoulder, and he ended up with tendinitis in his right elbow. After a series of starts and stops with a throwing program, he visited noted orthopedist James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Andrews found Hill's elbow was structurally sound and gave him a cortisone shot.

In three rehabilitation starts -- two for Class A Potomac and one for Class AAA Columbus -- Hill threw 12 innings with a 1.50 ERA, striking out four and walking one. General Manager Jim Bowden initially wanted Hill to make one more start for Columbus to work on his breaking pitches, but abruptly changed his mind Saturday.

"There's been a progression each time out," Hill said. "I've found more of a natural release point. At first, I was throwing to just one half of the plate, but as it went on, I feel like I can throw more to a certain spot. They weren't far off when they said [the breaking pitches] need more work, but my off-speed stuff is not my primary stuff."

Nationals Notes: The Nationals are one of several teams making last-minute pushes to sign their remaining draft picks by tomorrow's deadline, and there are several intriguing factors at work. The club had its regularly scheduled ownership meeting yesterday, and it's possible the baseball side of the club strongly pushed the ownership of the Lerner family for extra funds to land both key remaining picks, high school left-handers Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary.

The other factor: Major League Baseball's owners' meetings begin today in Toronto, and they straddle tomorrow's 11:59 p.m. deadline for signing draft picks. There is pressure from the commissioner's office for teams not to sign players for "over slot" value, meaning paying more than MLB's recommendation for a certain pick.

But with 12 unsigned first-rounders, several observers believe teams are involved in a large game of chicken, with none wanting to have to look the others in the eye and admit how much they paid to sign a key pick. The consensus is there will be a flood of signings immediately before the deadline -- with many over slot value. Yesterday, Atlanta signed the 14th overall pick, high school outfielder Jason Heyward, for $1.7 million, or $170,000 over his slot value, according to Baseball America.

Both Smoker, taken 31st overall, and McGeary, selected in the sixth round, are considered by some to be first-round talents. Smoker is committed to Clemson, but said after the draft he wanted to sign professionally. McGeary has a strong commitment to Stanford -- the reason he fell in the draft -- but he did accept the Nationals' invitation to visit Washington earlier this month, when he and his family met with club officials and attended two games. . . .

Right-hander Jason Bergmann (hamstring) made a rehabilitation start for Columbus last night, throwing 73 pitches in four innings, allowing five hits and three runs, walking three and striking out three.

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