- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Washington Nationals’ rotation has been patched together this season, with manager Manny Acta and general manager Jim Bowden forced to compensate for six starters who landed on the disabled list and others who didn’t perform up to standards.

The Nationals have used 13 starters in 2007, most in the majors and an astounding number made all the more remarkable considering the club’s overall pitching staff has the lowest ERA in baseball (3.87) since June 28.

But as the season approaches the three-quarter pole and attention begins to shift toward 2008, team officials face the daunting challenge of figuring out who among that large pool of starting pitchers still needs to be seen down the stretch and who fits into the long-term plan.

To that end, tonight’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium features an important development: Shawn Hill returns to the mound.

Three months after landing on the DL with injuries to both his right elbow and his left (non-throwing) shoulder, the 26-year-old finally starts again for a Washington club that has sorely missed him.

Hill was the Nationals’ best pitcher during the season’s first six weeks, posting a 3-3 record with a 2.70 ERA that ranked among the league leaders. Having overcome major elbow surgery from three years ago, the sinkerball specialist was in the process of cementing his place atop Acta’s rotation before he dislocated his shoulder diving into third base. That injury threw off his mechanics, strained his surgically repaired right elbow and landed him back on the DL.

Now healthy again, Hill will look to recapture the form he displayed in April to recement his status as Washington’s ace. Not that he necessarily needs to, according to his manager.

“That wasn’t a fluke,” Acta said. “I don’t need to see any recapture or anything. He can struggle the rest of the way, and we know the stuff is there. It’s just about him being healthy. He doesn’t have to prove anything to me with performance the rest of the way.”

Acta can’t say the same about anyone else in his stable of starting pitchers.

“I think Shawn is above the rest of the guys,” he said. “Most of the other guys, they still have to go out there and show that they belong here and that they can help here in the future.”

Jason Bergmann pitched just as well as Hill early in the season (a 2.76 ERA in his first eight starts) but was shaky after returning from his own elbow injury (a 7.96 ERA in six subsequent starts) and is now back on the DL with a strained hamstring.

Matt Chico has shown impressive mental toughness to handle his first season in the big leagues and is the lone member of the Opening Day rotation not to miss a turn. But the 23-year-old left-hander has struggled over his last six outings, posting a 6.25 ERA, and has left some team officials wondering whether he will develop into more than a No. 4 or 5 starter over time.

Stopgap starters have been bumped to the bullpen (Mike Bacsik), stuck on the DL (Jason Simontacchi, Micah Bowie) or demoted to the minors (Billy Traber, Levale Speigner). Journeyman Tim Redding (2.86 ERA in seven starts) remains in the rotation but could be squeezed out if he starts to falter or if the club decides to look at other young players over the next seven weeks.

And what of those young kids slowly making their way up to the District? Acta places a premium on those pitchers he has been able to see consistently all season. So although he’s impressed with rookies John Lannan (1-1, 3.00 ERA in four starts) and Joel Hanrahan (2-0, 2.76 in three), he’s not ready to pencil either young hurler into his 2008 rotation.

“I don’t think I’m going to be changing my mind because some guys come up here and have two, three good outings,” the manager said. “We do look at [a pitcher’s] stuff and the future and age and all that, and we’ll make our decisions. But we’re not going to forget everything that we’ve seen in the past here or forget about guys’ stuff because somebody comes up over here the last month or so and pitches well.”