Hill Is Sharp, But Nats' Bats Remain Quiet

Luis Ayala fails to provide any relief, surrendering an eighth-inning grand slam that sealed another loss.
Luis Ayala fails to provide any relief, surrendering an eighth-inning grand slam that sealed another loss. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Injuries cause misery and mess with big plans, but they also offer a choice. Teams can collapse, or compensate. The short story of last night's game -- though it was masked by bullpen problems that turned a close game into a 6-0 Washington defeat to San Francisco -- is that Shawn Hill learned how to deal with his injury.

Hill (0-3) took the loss but had his most promising start in a month, pitching into the eighth inning of a scoreless contest. "It doesn't go unnoticed how well he threw the ball for us," Manager Manny Acta said.

The offense, meantime, continued its run of ineptitude. In the last seven games, the team has scored more than one run just once. As this one finished with a 1-2-3 ninth, only the lightning outside Nationals Park posed a threat. "Does it [stink]?" second baseman Felipe López said. "Yeah."

Any good news from last night's 2-hour 19-minute game came from Hill, who was removed in the eighth inning (with the score 0-0, one out and two on) and summarily buried by Luis Ayala, who yielded three hits and one grand slam during a 32-pitch implosion.

After three consecutive belabored starts, Hill finally met his own expectations -- both lofty and elusive. During the middle of the game, he retired 15 batters in a row. It was that old thing Hill used to know well: a groove.

Right forearm pain and, briefly, corresponding elbow pain had handicapped Hill's ability this season. Between starts, until this week, he'd been unable to throw in the bullpen, sessions often necessary to keep the gloss on all pitches but his fastball. In his previous three starts, Hill struggled to locate his breaking pitches.

Hill's start last weekend against Arizona resulted in little visible reason for optimism, except for one thing. When it ended, though his stats looked ugly, his forearm felt all right. Well enough, in fact, that Hill threw in the bullpen in the middle of the week. That encouraged the Nationals -- who view Hill, when healthy, as a potential No. 2 starter -- and fed Hill's hopes for his outing against San Francisco.

"It was sort of out of necessity, because I was getting to the point where I was frustrated with not getting the results I wanted to and knowing it was a mechanical thing, a feel thing," Hill said. "I didn't have to [do the bullpen], but in my mind, I needed to."

Hill showed the benefits, too. His full repertoire sparkled. He used his sinker to induce sponge-soft groundouts. He used a drop-from-the-table curve to strike out John Bowker, ending the fourth. Through seven innings, he threw just 86 pitches -- 56 for strikes. Perhaps the most proper assessment of Hill: He looked uninjured.

Washington's offense has faced a challenge similar to Hill's. Injuries have ripped apart the lineup, skinning it of all power and dependability. To date, the Nationals have yet to compensate for their injuries. Hitters that started the season at the bottom of the order -- or at the bottom of Class AAA Columbus's order -- now comprise Washington's primary hopes. Against San Francisco starter Jonathan Sánchez (5-3), the Nationals failed in three of the first four innings after the leadoff man reached base.

"Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns and Ryan Zimmerman are our 3-4-5 hitters, and they're not in the lineup," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "When they're not there, you won't have the same ability to score runs as you would if they were there. They were in a slump, and normally guys like that hit out of slumps because of their proven track record, and I think they would have. Certainly, we need to get our big boys healthy and back on the field."

Why? Look at the third inning, when No. 3 hitter Lastings Milledge -- with two aboard, a scenario set for runs -- gifted a double-play ball to shortstop. Look at the sixth inning, when Aaron Boone, batting fourth, grounded into a double play after a Milledge hit. Look at the seventh, when López, following a Jesús Flores hit to shallow center, grounded into a double play and jogged three-quarters of the way to first base. (He was removed in the next half-inning during a double switch, a move Acta said was unrelated.)

"Well he was out by 50 feet," Acta said. "It was a hit-and-run and the shortstop was covering."

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