VIERA, Fla., Feb. 26 -- That night last June, Shawn Hill took to the mound at Fenway Park knowing his right elbow wasn't quite perfect, knowing the situation was bound to go bad. The previous two evenings against the Boston Red Sox, the starting pitchers for the Washington Nationals had failed to get out of the fourth inning. The bullpen was gassed. Hill needed to pitch, and pitch deep into the game, sore elbow or not.

Hill gave up a grand slam to David Ortiz in the second. He allowed another run in the fifth. And when he got back to the dugout, the question was simple: You have anything left?

"I just thought, 'I can't afford to come out,' " Hill said. "They'll shoot me."

So he went back out for the sixth inning, the Red Sox batted around, Hill made one more start in the majors last year, and that was it. His elbow was too sore to pitch, and he never appeared again with the Nationals.

Washington simply can't afford events like those of 2006 to unfold this season because its starting rotation is thinner than ever, and Hill is pitching too well -- and has too much potential -- to be cast aside by June, to not throw again all year. He is convinced that his elbow problems last year weren't caused by that 110-pitch outing against the Red Sox. "The doctors told me it would've happened anyway, whether then or two weeks down the road," he said.

But he is well aware that, as a strong candidate for one of the four open spots in the Nationals' rotation, staying healthy is more imperative than at any other time in his young career.

"You got to do it over a long period of time," Hill said Monday, four days before he is scheduled to throw the Nationals' Grapefruit League opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. "There are a lot of guys who come up and they're a flash-in-the-pan type of deal. I think I have what it takes to pitch long-term up here. It's yet to be shown, obviously."

Lest anyone doubt whether Hill has the ability to retire major league hitters, check out his first four starts in the majors last year. He never failed to complete six innings. He never gave up more than three earned runs. He dominated the Dodgers by allowing one run and five hits in seven innings, baffled the Philadelphia Phillies by throwing two-hit, shutout ball for seven innings two weeks later. To those who saw him in his first stint in the majors -- 2004, when he made three starts for the Montreal Expos, before he underwent reconstructive surgery on his elbow -- he was a completely different person.

"He took care of himself better," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He knows where that sinker's going now, and he's got three pitches to go along with it. He's confident out there. He's having a good time. I loved it. I loved every bit of it last year."

Hill is blessed with natural movement on his pitches, a quality that particularly helps his sinker, which runs away from left-handed hitters and down and in on right-handers. Toss in his change-up, a slider and a curveball, and he would appear to have a complete repertoire.

But Monday morning, as he stood in the bullpen with pitching coach Randy St. Claire, the pair found themselves with a few extra minutes, so they decided to tinker with something. St. Claire showed Hill how to grip a cut fastball, holding the right-hand side of the ball between his two forefingers and his thumb, "almost as if it's going to fall out of your hand," St. Claire said. The action, if executed correctly, would cause the ball to cut in on left-handed hitters right at the belt buckle.

"Cutter," Hill yelled to catcher Jesus Flores, "and I have no idea where it's going."

Hill followed through on the pitch, and it ran straight into Flores's glove. He threw a few more, then sprinkled in five or six to a live batting practice session.

"Just something to tinker with," he said afterward. He and St. Claire wouldn't want the motion on the cutter to alter anything with his other pitches, so this is merely a first step. "It's a long, long way from being used in a game," Hill said.

It also, however, shows that Hill, at 25, is still young, still developing. He has only nine major league appearances, and is just 2-5 with a 6.90 ERA in them. "I'm always learning," he said.

Most of all, he is still trying to learn his body and whether it can hold up. He said his goal this year is straightforward: throw between 180 and 200 innings. "I pride myself, as a starter, on being able to eat innings," he said. Yet in his six seasons of professional baseball, he has never thrown more than 147.

That June night last year in Boston, the beginning of the end of 2006 for Shawn Hill, the pain in his elbow prevented him from extending his arm, from throwing the sinker the way he wanted. The pitch to Ortiz? A sinker that was supposed to dart down and away, yet stayed over the middle of the plate.

"Now," Schneider said, "he's putting that pitch exactly where he wants to. I'm excited to watch him pitch this year, because I don't think there's any question that he can win in the big leagues."