By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Shawn Hill's latest start, because of its dysfunction, demanded an ending. The right-hander's three dismal innings in last night's 8-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels forced the Washington Nationals, finally, to pull Hill from their rotation and schedule him for a medical examination at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
In recent weeks, while trying to pitch in spite of an ailing forearm, Hill has dealt with two forms of torment -- one when facing opposing lineups, one when facing his own limitations. When yesterday's game ended at Nationals Park, Hill -- and his team -- could withstand the affliction of bad pitching no longer.
Manager Manny Acta said Hill would likely head to the disabled list. Hill (1-5) acknowledged that "I'm just not right." He talked with General Manager Jim Bowden and trainer Lee Kuntz about his arm. Hill didn't know when it might improve enough to pitch again.
"Not a whole lot of guys throw through this for as long as I have," said Hill, who was still waiting to hear the time-and-date specifics of his appointment in Minnesota. "Maybe two weeks off, a week off, a month off, whatever it may be, I have no idea. I might come back and feel like a new guy, or [the rest] might do absolutely nothing. I have no idea."
Hill's three innings and 74 pitches last night -- the margin for eight runs, six earned -- struck perhaps the loudest warning bell of the season, impossible to dismiss, given how his start shined a light on recurring problems and offered no suggestion of their impermanence.
Sure, the Nationals have had other games this year when starting pitchers combusted. But always, those performances justified little reason for concern. When Jason Bergmann allowed eight runs in three innings vs. the Giants on June 6, it was just a spasm of inconsistency. When Mike O'Connor allowed nine runs in 3 1/3 innings May 10 against the Marlins, it was just the one-time mess caused by a pitcher who would soon be in Class AAA Columbus.
But Hill's latest game surpassed the threshold that separates a bad outing from a bad omen. Baseball teams can handle a pitcher with a tough game; they have greater pain dealing with a tough month. The numbers from Hill's last three starts have the visceral effect of a fire alarm. In 11 2/3 innings, he has allowed 30 hits and 20 runs, 16 of them earned. After his previous start, May 19 at Minnesota, Hill shrugged off questions about his health not by saying he felt good, but by saying he felt good enough to pitch.
Privately, he worried.
After losing to the Twins, he had spoken with his wife, Ashley, about possibly shutting himself down. Ashley recommended as much. Hill decided to try one more start -- this time, without painkillers, the last variable he could think to alter. But it didn't help.
"I thought I'd be mentally sharper, and I felt like I was, but I also felt a little bit more aware of what was going on with my arm, and I started changing," Hill said. "Go look at the video, and my delivery is very inconsistent."
All season, Hill had tried to combat his forearm pain, a condition that required him to start the season on the disabled list. When he returned to the mound April 19, he tried to adjust and adapt. His initial attempt to rest between starts prevented him from bullpen sessions -- which meant he entered games rusty, lacking command. His adamant decision in more recent weeks to throw between starts only worsened the results, intensifying questions about Hill's long-term health -- and his effectiveness.
His pitches? "Flat," Hill said.
His location? "Suffering," Acta said.
The natural motion in his delivery? Gone. "The ball doesn't have the same sink and movement it normally does," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said.
By the time Hill walked from the mound in the first inning against the Angels, showered by jeers, he had allowed five hits and six runs on 35 pitches. Seven of the first eight batters he faced reached base. Left fielder Paul Lo Duca and first baseman Dmitri Young both committed errors behind him. The succession of hits -- from Erick Aybar, from Vladimir Guerrero, from Torii Hunter, just to name a few -- blackened the scorecards. When the inning ended, the Nationals, a team that hadn't scored six runs in more than a week, trailed 6-0.
"I was trying to have a breakout game, but obviously that hasn't happened," Hill said. "At some point in time you have to be realistic. I'm not helping the team, I'm not helping myself. I'm hurting the bullpen. I'm putting Manny in a bad spot."
"Obviously," Acta said, "this is not the Shawn Hill we wanted to see. And the pain continues."