Nats waste ace’s solid return

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For all the pitching success they have enjoyed over the last three months, there has been one gaping hole atop the Washington Nationals’ rotation since May 11 — an ace.

Last night, Shawn Hill returned to the mound at RFK Stadium and emphatically stated he intends to assume that role for the rest of the season and — the Nationals only can hope — for years to come.

With six innings of one-hit ball against the Philadelphia Phillies, the 26-year-old right-hander picked up right where he left off three months ago before going on the disabled list with injuries to his throwing elbow and non-throwing shoulder.

“It’s tough to imagine anybody being as sharp as he was today,” manager Manny Acta said.

If only a couple other Nationals players had been sharp enough to complement Hill’s brilliant evening and reward the pitcher and the club with a win.

Leading by two runs in the eighth, Washington watched as the Phillies rallied to take the lead off setup man Jon Rauch and sneak out of the ballpark with a 3-2 victory before 27,128 stunned fans.

Rauch wasn’t totally to blame. Ryan Zimmerman helped get the rally going when he threw high to first on Jayson Werth’s one-out grounder — Zimmerman’s 18th error this season, which tied him for the most among major league third basemen.

“Just a bad throw,” Zimmerman said. “You have 300 attempts or whatever, you’re going to throw a bad one every now and then, and that’s what happened.”

Maybe, maybe not. Acta, who has defended his young third baseman’s glove work all season, said he believes a mechanical flaw could be to blame. The manager thinks Zimmerman is standing up too straight when he prepares to throw the ball, particularly when trying to throw out slow runners.

“I’m not only the manager. I’m also the infield instructor,” Acta said. “So I’m going to work with him.”

Still, Zimmerman’s miscue would have been a footnote had Rauch (8-3) been able to get through the rest of the inning without surrendering a couple of crucial hits: an RBI single by Carlos Ruiz and a two-run homer by pinch-hitter Russell Branyan on an 88 mph inside fastball.

And that spoiled what was otherwise an impressive night for the Nationals, who in addition to Hill’s brilliant performance saw reliever Luis Ayala strike out Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard and Aaron Rowand in succession and pinch-hitter Tony Batista drive a two-run double to left to give Washington a 2-0 lead.

“I feel awful for what happened,” Rauch said. “[Hill] pitched well. Ayala had a [heck] of an inning against the toughest part of their lineup. I just did not do my job.”

Late collapse aside, the Nationals did have to emerge pleased with Hill’s career-high, seven-strikeout performance in his first game back.

Though pain in his surgically repaired elbow sidelined him three months ago, Hill never pitched like he was hurt. In his last start in the majors, he tossed five hitless innings before departing.

So the Nationals had few doubts about the right-hander’s ability to come back at full force.

“He’s our number one guy,” Acta said matter-of-factly before the game.

Hill did nothing to dispute that notion, looking in control from the moment he toed the rubber. He never let up, relying on his hard sinker to get ahead of hitters and retire the first nine batters he faced. The Phillies had no hits through four innings, meaning Hill had thrown 10 consecutive hitless innings dating back to May 6.

In the dugout, Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire only could gush.

“It’s like, [gosh], it would be nice to have this guy 35 times a year going out there and giving you the effort he gives every five days,” Acta said. “Just tremendous.”

Hill would have departed without a hit charged to his name if not for the latest incident of miscommunication between outfielders Ryan Church and Nook Logan, who watched as Rowand’s catchable fly ball to the left-center gap fell between them in the fifth for a cheap single.

Hill didn’t let the gaffe throw him off his game. He calmly got through the rest of the inning unscathed and then tossed a 1-2-3 sixth to cap a brilliant return from the DL and justify the “ace” status his manager has bestowed upon him.

“I appreciate that he says that, but at the same time, I have to go out there and throw well,” Hill said. “I’ve only got nine starts under my belt this year, a couple last year. If I go out there and end up with a [5.00] or [6.00] ERA, I’m just going to be lumped in as an average guy.”

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