By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
When the fans at RFK Stadium last saw Shawn Hill on the mound, he was twirling five no-hit innings, making another step toward taking over the top spot in the Washington Nationals' rotation. Last night, it was as if Hill merely had pressed pause on the DVD player, then went to get some soda and popcorn before returning to the comfort of the couch. The only issue: It took Hill three months to hit "play" again.
Hill's stellar six-inning, one-hit outing was sullied by a nasty eighth inning -- one in which third baseman Ryan Zimmerman started a rally with a throwing error and reliever Jon Rauch finished it by allowing a two-run homer to pinch hitter Russell Branyan, the plays that provided the Philadelphia Phillies with a 3-2 victory. But as he sat in the dugout watching Hill -- who was limited to 78 pitches in his first start since May -- Manager Manny Acta was able to turn to pitching coach Randy St. Claire and say, "God, it'd be nice to have this guy 35 times a year."
"I just need Shawn to be healthy," Acta said. "I don't need to see anything else. . . . The stuff is there. He's no fluke."
Last night was Hill's ninth start, and though he struck out a career-high seven, walked just one and gave up only a bloop single that should have been caught, Hill -- whose ERA now is 2.41 -- brushed aside such high praise.
"It's easy for him to say that," Hill said. "I appreciate that he says that. But at the same time, I have to go out there and throw well. . . . If I go out there and end up with a five or six ERA that blows up, I'm just going to lumped in as an average guy."
For the Nationals, in the process of using the final seven weeks to determine who among them are serious contenders for the 2008 rotation, Hill is well above average. When last he appeared in the majors on May 11 at RFK -- before he succumbed to left shoulder and right elbow issues -- he worked those five innings without giving up a hit against the Florida Marlins. So what to make of last night's events?
"It took me a couple innings to settle down and get me to where I was sharp," Hill said.
Really? Hill roared through the Phillies' lineup in the first three innings, striking out three. Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins opened the fourth with a grounder that Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez charged. Lopez got to the ball in time but threw wide of first, and Rollins took second on the error. Hill escaped by fielding a comebacker and catching Rollins in a rundown, then striking out the Phillies' third- and fourth-place hitters, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard.
That was four no-hit innings, albeit with a three-month layoff. Add them to the five in his last appearance, and -- voila! -- a no-hitter.
"He showed us why he was anticipated in his return," Rauch said.
Hill's travails began on April 20, when he hit a single in Florida. He ended up on third base, and when Marlins lefty Scott Olsen threw a pitch to the backstop, Hill broke home. But the wall is close to the plate at Dolphin Stadium, and the ball quickly bounced back to catcher Miguel Olivo. Hill was therefore caught in a rundown. He ended up diving back into third base, jamming his left shoulder as he was tagged out.
Though he made his next two starts -- even taking a shutout into the eighth inning against the Phillies on April 26 -- he aggravated the shoulder while covering first base May 1 in San Diego. That, he believes, messed up his mechanics and put strain on his arm, leading to the diagnosis of tendinitis in his right elbow.
Last night, though, he proclaimed himself healthy, and if he feels the same way today, he thinks he can throw every fifth day the rest of the year. The only hit against him came leading off the fifth, when Aaron Rowand lofted a fly ball to short left-center. It appeared either left fielder Ryan Church or center fielder Nook Logan could have caught the ball, but they failed to communicate and it dropped in.
The disaster came in the eighth, with the Nationals up 2-0 on Tony Batista's two-run double. With one out, Jayson Werth hit an easy grounder to Zimmerman at third. He grabbed the roller with no problem, but his throw -- for which he had plenty of time -- sailed well over first baseman Robert Fick.
"If you want to win games," Zimmerman said, "you can't do stuff like that."
And if you want to win Gold Gloves, you can't do it either. It was Zimmerman's 18th error, tying him for the most among National League third basemen. Acta believes his errant throws are related to a footwork problem.
"Like that commercial goes, 'I'm not only the manager, but I'm also the infield instructor,' " Acta said. "So I'm going to work with him."
After Carlos Ruiz singled home Werth, Rauch threw a 1-0 fastball that was supposed to be away -- but instead was well inside -- to Branyan. "Just a very bad mistake," Rauch said.
Branyan crushed it out to right. The Nationals never recovered. It appears, however, that Hill has.