By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007
Shawn Hill may have been sitting in the dugout after he was removed from his start yesterday, muttering under his breath and cursing himself, because that is his way. Among the assessments he gave of his five-inning, three-run performance were the following: one pitch was "completely stupid," at another point he "completely lost control of the strike zone," and walking a season-high four batters was "completely unacceptable."
But Hill, the Washington Nationals' promising 26-year-old right-hander, was also able to stare out at the mound and watch one Tim Hudson of the Atlanta Braves. The two are not identical pitchers, for Hill relies heavily on a sinking fastball and Hudson has such a grab-bag of tricks that he occasionally appears to improvise pitches. The results, though, are what Hill wants. Perhaps someday he can emulate the 3-0 shutout Hudson twirled at RFK Stadium, giving the Braves the final game of this three-game series while making the Nationals appear utterly helpless.
"I need to be able to watch his performances, see when he's going bad what he's doing, when he's going good [what he's doing], that kind of stuff," Hill said. "In terms of overall approach, if I can't learn something from watching him today, there's something wrong."
The Nationals believe there is much right with Hill, even on a day when he clearly didn't have his best control or his sharpest sinker, giving himself plenty of reason to flog himself afterward. His poor inning was the third, when he gave Hudson an 0-2 fastball -- the pitch he labeled "completely stupid," because he should have tried to make the opposing pitcher chase something off the plate -- and then walked Edgar Renteria and Chipper Jones to load the bases. For a pitcher who had walked one man in his previous four starts, this was perplexing, and it led to a two-run, groundball single to right from Braves cleanup man Mark Teixeira that was all Hudson would need.
So stand back a bit, and let Hill vent. Hudson's output -- seven hits, one walk, 100 pitches to finish the Braves' first complete game of the year -- is what Hill wants to produce, apparently, every time out.
"He put on a textbook performance of what to do," Hill said, "and I showed in the third what not to do. It's exactly what you're supposed to do -- efficient with his pitches, down in the strike zone, letting guys put the ball in play. . . . Exactly what you're supposed to do. I, basically, did the opposite."
Hill's self-assessments are gaining a reputation in the Nationals' clubhouse, in part because they are, at times, patently absurd. In 15 starts this year, he has allowed more than three earned runs once. His ERA is now 3.01 -- which is nearly a third of a run lower than Hudson's.
But that apparent pursuit of perfection is one reason Hill's teammates have gained an appreciation for him in this, his first full season in the majors. He missed three months after complications with his right elbow that arose because he injured his left shoulder diving recklessly back into a base in Florida. The shoulder bothers him enough that he will have surgery on it after the season. Yet he still pitches.
"I think we respect him for that," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "When he goes out there, we know he's going to give us everything he has every day, and we trust him."
On a pitching staff that has been beset by injuries, that is no small matter. "I think we all feel, when he takes the mound, that we're going to win," right fielder Austin Kearns said.
The Braves, in turn, feel that way about Hudson. Against the Nationals, he is a mortal lock. His win Sunday capped off a mini-season of perfection against Washington, four wins in four starts in which he allowed two runs in 30 innings for a 0.60 ERA.
"We just don't match up very well against him," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "You make your own conclusion. I don't want to beat on my own team. But we just don't match up very well against him."
Translation: Washington, the team that has scored fewer runs than anyone else in baseball, isn't good enough to beat an elite pitcher with superb stuff. That's exactly what Hudson was yesterday, tinkering with a curveball he said just "popped into my repertoire," then occasionally dropping down nearly side-arm to throw a wicked slider.
"He was making stuff up," Zimmerman said.
Hill, from the dugout, could watch and take notes. His other mistake came on a poorly executed 0-2 sinker to Kelly Johnson in the fourth, one Johnson drilled to center for a solo homer. The Nationals, some day, expect Hill might turn in Hudson-like performances with regularity. But consider: Yesterday was Hudson's 279th major league start, Hill's 24th.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Acta cautioned, and Hill won't. He has two more starts this year, and he wants to finish strong. His assessment of his season?
"Overall, it hasn't been too, too bad, I guess" he said.
Perhaps some day, Hill will throw a game like Hudson did yesterday -- and allow himself the satisfaction of acknowledging a job well done.