Arm Soreness Bothers Nats' Hill Once Again

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 1 -- Washington Nationals right-hander Shawn Hill owns both an electrifying sinker and a tender right arm, and while the former has looked impressive this spring, the latter is once again betraying him. Hill, perhaps the Nationals' best starting pitcher if healthy, received a precautionary MRI exam on his sore right forearm, has been ordered to stop throwing and will travel to receive a second opinion on the problem Monday -- all leaving his spot in Washington's rotation very much in doubt less than a month before Opening Day.

The MRI on Hill was, according to club officials, "unremarkable," and it showed no signs of swelling or a tendon tear in his right arm. Because of that, Hill said, "I'm not overly concerned."

"Based on the MRI, we believe Shawn will be fine," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "This second opinion is only for precautionary reasons."

But given his history of injuries -- since 2003, he has pitched no more than 110 innings in a season, combined between the majors and minors -- Manager Manny Acta is cautious about what Hill's latest malady might mean. Though right-hander John Patterson -- equally talented, equally injury-prone -- got through his first two-inning start of the spring without incident Saturday, Acta said the club can't simply chalk up 30 starts for either him or Hill.

"When people have the history that he has, and Patterson has," Acta said, "we just couldn't come over here to this camp with those two guys penciled in [as numbers] one and two."

The latest incident demonstrates why, when speaking of Hill's enormous potential, Acta invariably began his assessment with the words, "If he's healthy . . . ." Hill was limited to 16 major league starts last season by left shoulder and right elbow problems, and he had surgery on both -- the elbow in September, the shoulder in October. The elbow surgery served to decompress a nerve in his arm, a procedure similar to the one which limited Patterson to seven starts in 2007.

It's unclear, though, whether Hill's soreness is directly related to the surgery. Hill said one possibility is that he has tendinitis, which would get better with rest.

Hill first developed tightness in the forearm perhaps a month ago. He pitched through a similar problem last year and thought he might do it again. He has said throughout spring training -- during which he has thrown impressive sessions of live batting practice -- that the problem is worst when he's warming up, but it improves as he gets into a workout. He also considered the discomfort "normal" because he was coming back from surgery.

"Once I get it geared up, it's not that bad," Hill said. "That's the reason we've kind of pushed through it to this point. . . . It's just a matter of trying to get through it without that discomfort."

That, though, hasn't worked. The Nationals theorize that -- even though they have been cautious with Hill, giving him an extra day off between bullpen sessions -- the problem could be from overuse. If that's the case, Acta said they may have to devise a special program for Hill, one that perhaps would limit his throwing between starts.

"It could also be something he has to deal with the rest of his life," Acta said.

The club will know more after Hill travels for a second opinion at Duke University in Durham, N.C., where Patterson had surgery last year to decompress the radial nerve in his right arm. Hill will leave Sunday and see a specialist Monday morning. He was scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut on Wednesday, but that start -- as well as subsequent outings -- are now in doubt.

Hill's injury could be a boon to someone like left-hander Odalis PĂ©rez, who was signed to a minor league contract after a poor 2007 with Kansas City in which he posted a 5.57 ERA. The 30-year-old Dominican does not yet have a work visa that would allow him to pitch in Grapefruit League games, but he will start Tuesday against a team of Nationals' minor leaguers.

Those in the Washington clubhouse, though, would prefer to go forward with Hill and Patterson both healthy, anchoring the front of the rotation. Patterson pitched two innings in Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, snapping off several curveballs, allowing a solo home run to Scott Moore and striking out two. He pronounced himself happy with the performance, but knows how important his development -- along with Hill's -- could be to the team's chances of improving on last year's 73-89 record.

"For us to win, and win consistently, in the big leagues, I think we both have to be healthy," Patterson said. "That just boosts everybody's confidence in here, also. They're looking at the two of us to not necessarily carry the team, but to be a front-line starter. That's the truth of the situation. They need to have the confidence that they know that we are on the field."

Though Hill's major league record is just 6-10 in 25 starts, he impressed teammates a year ago by allowing three earned runs or fewer in 14 of his 16 outings, relying heavily on his sinker.

"If he's hurting a little bit, we're going to need him to battle it out," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's a tough guy, and he's going to pitch unless he feels like it'll hurt the team or they tell him he can't. But we need him."

Whether they'll have him by March 30, the season opener, remains to be seen. The competition for the starting rotation will continue, even as Hill rests. Bowden said the team is "always looking" for starting pitching, but Hill's situation doesn't make the pursuit more aggressive.

"We're prepared to go along with him or without him," Acta said. "As I said, when you have guys like that, you've got to prepare yourself. And we do have enough guys here to throw five guys out there."

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