Mound of Concerns

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, April 26, 2008

The biggest pieces of the puzzle often hide in plain sight. For the Nationals, this draining April has disguised the team's most important issues.

The hitting slump that's defined the team's spring and put Washington at the bottom of most offensive categories will soon pass. Write it down: The Nats will be near the middle of the National League in runs this season. Reverting to past performance, plus playing in a smaller park, will see to that. The last two nights, with 10 runs against the Mets and a Wil Nieves walk-off homer against the Cubs, may accelerate the process. Injuries are also quickly resolving themselves. However, for this season and for the future, these are not the Nats' truly big questions.

Shawn Hill and Chad Cordero are.

The two best pitchers on the team, the ace and the closer, are battling arm miseries. Both think they are just around the corner from their previous healthy form. Yet there is plenty of reason to worry about the only two hurlers in the organization about whom it could currently be said that, if healthy, they'd probably be integral parts of a contender.

"The most important thing for our season is probably those two guys -- Hill and Chief," Ryan Zimmerman said last night. "With Chad in there, our bullpen sets up real well from the sixth inning right through the ninth. And you can't fault our starting pitching for our start. They've done real well. But if you add Shawn with that 90 to 94 mph sinker, we get a lot better."

Without those two, however, the entire pitching staff deteriorates. With Cordero on the disabled list most of the spring, the entire bullpen has been stretched thin, with every man cast in a new and slightly too-difficult role.

Hill, recovering from surgeries on his left (non-throwing) shoulder and right forearm for a compressed nerve, has either "pain" or "discomfort" between starts and when trying to loosen up, depending on your definition of "it hurts."

In two mediocre five-inning starts since returning, Hill's command has been inconsistent, but for raw stuff "he seems like he's all the way back," assistant GM Bob Boone said.

"How does your arm feel?" Hill was asked last night after pitching on Thursday.

"Stiff, achy, hurts. About normal," he said.

Actually, the droll, perfectionist Canadian isn't that sour on his status. "The velocity is there, the movement is there. The off-speed stuff isn't as sharp," Hill said. "I need to reach a comfort zone with my arm. I'm still fighting it. But I should be able to compete."

However, in his desire to compete, Hill's perfectly balanced delivery sometimes becomes contorted with effort, costing control. "I might hurt, but I'm not damaging anything, they tell me," he said. "It's a pain in the butt. But I don't plan to be battling this forever. It's part of the process [of recovering for the surgery]. By mid-May, I should be on all cylinders."

If he does, the Nats' rotation could be a considerable surprise. In his last two starts, young John Lannan has looked remarkable, striking out 11 Mets, then outdueling John Smoltz. Three years after surgery, Tim Redding is a power pitcher again with a fine 3.67 ERA, almost identical to his 3.64 mark in 15 starts in '07. The jury is still out on Odalis Pérez but, so far, his 3.31 ERA with two or less runs allowed in five of six starts bear no resemblance to his horrific stats of the last two years.

Still, Hill is essential to the Nats' humble quintet. Washington is currently in the fifth game of a seven-day span when the '08 salaries of its starting pitchers are a combined $3.8 million while its foe's hurlers will earn $84.5 million this season.

The case of Cordero strikes closer to the heart. What little history the new Nats have in Washington since '05 begins largely with the Chief. When you step into the Nats' new clubhouse, the first huge color photo on the wall is of Liván Hernández's first pitch on Opening Day when the team returned. The next is of Cordero, screaming in victory, pointing his finger in joy at a teammate after one of his 47 saves in that playoff race season.

Yet just two days ago, his teammates held their breath as they took batting practice, awaiting word from Birmingham, Ala., where Cordero was being examined by James Andrews, the physician whose name is most often associated with season-ending or even career-changing arm surgery. When word arrived that Cordero only had tendinitis in a weakened rotator cuff -- that he wouldn't even have to go on the DL -- the news buzzed through the whole team.

"I'm relieved," the reliever said. "Going there is usually a bad thing. I've been real lucky in my career, staying away from the knife."

An early flight left Cordero in Andrews's waiting room for 2 1/2 hours, time for a man's career to pass before his eyes a dozen times, especially after a gruesome outing in New York this month when Cordero, unable to get loose, threw "fastballs" that only reached the mid-70's. Teammates gasped. "I've only seen that one other time," Hill said. "Mike González usually throws 95. One night he came in throwing 82, but said he had no pain. Turned out he had a torn elbow."

"All that [waiting] gave me even more time to think. I was pretty nervous," Cordero said. "I had my phone and kept going on the Internet to distract myself. I didn't think it would be bad because my shoulder still felt tight. But you never know when something can be hiding under there."

Cordero has not thrown a pitch this spring within 5 mph of his old best. Still, there may be a silver lining. Cordero's never been much on conditioning. His locker, as one teammate points out, is "the one nearest the food room." Now, strengthening his legs and abdomen may suddenly become essential to protect his shoulder. "I ran a mile today, rode the bike, worked on my abs," Cordero said. "I've never worked this hard in my life." Today he is scheduled to pitch an inning. His goal: hit 88 on the gun.

For the moment, their sights are set on modest heights. Hill wants to get his change-up back, tighten up his delivery and keep his sinkers low. Cordero just wants to get his arm strength back, even if gradually, while depending on control and guile to survive for a little while in non-save situation.

In coming weeks, Nats hitters will revert to their career-long norms, which are adequate and may seem Ruthian compared with the long scoring droughts in RFK. The real key to being an entertaining competitive team, not a disappointing one, lies at the top of the rotation and the back of the bullpen.

If Hill makes two dozen more starts and Cordero saves 30 games, the new Nationals Park will have plenty of reason to jump. But if both, or even one, ends up back on the DL, their futures once more in question, even a sweet summer in a ritzy new house could get mighty long for the Nats.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company