- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2008

SEATTLE — As they stood on the dugout railing Friday night, jackets on and hands in pockets to combat the surprising chill in the air, various Washington Nationals may have glanced at the hand-operated scoreboard down the left-field line and done a double-take.

Was that really a “6” posted in the top half of the second inning? Had the least-productive lineup in the majors really just batted around and seized control of a ballgame before the sun even set?

That was no mirage. The Nationals indeed broke out their bats in a rare display of offensive prowess. Then they hung on for dear life, withstanding a shaky start from Shawn Hill and a spirited comeback attempt by the Seattle Mariners to escape Safeco Field with a 7-6 victory.

“We needed every one of them,” manager Manny Acta said of those seven early runs his team scored.

In a showdown between the clubs with the worst records in their respective leagues, conventional wisdom was defied all over the place.

A Washington team that was hitting a collective .236 when the night began pounded out eight hits in the first two innings, then managed just two singles the rest of the evening.

Hill, who had performed far better in several previous outings, emerged with his first victory of the season despite allowing 12 hits over five laborious innings.

“A little ironic, yeah,” the right-hander said. “I go out there and completely blow it up, and I get the win out of it somehow.”

Considering the matchup of two of the lowest-scoring teams in baseball, it was only fitting that this turned into a slugfest. Both teams came out swinging, especially the Nationals, who jumped on knuckleballer R.A. Dickey in a rare display of offensive prowess.

Washington scored one run in the first, then exploded for six more in the second — the club´s largest output in any single inning this year — to knock Dickey out of the game to a chorus of boos from the crowd of 35,941.

“We didn´t know what to expect,” Acta said. “That´s the first knuckleballer that we´ve faced, and I really didn´t know how the guys were going to handle it. They made Dickey get the ball up and were able to put some good swings on it.”

The biggest hits came with two outs: a two-run double by Jesus Flores, then a two-run single by Ronnie Belliard (the ninth batter of the inning). Just like that, a Nationals lineup that had been held to zero or one run in seven of its last 12 games had given Hill a 7-1 lead after two innings that should have all but ensured victory.

If only things were that simple.

Staked to that six-run lead, Hill did just about everything in his power to hand it right back to the Mariners. He allowed broken-bat singles. He served up sharply hit doubles. He nibbled around the strike zone.

Asked to evaluate his performance, Hill replied: “Terrible. I gave up 85 hits.”

Let the record show that he only surrendered 12. Yet when he threw his 110th pitch of the night, inducing a groundball out of No. 9 hitter Yuniesky Betancourt, he walked off the mound having somehow put himself in line to earn his first win in 10 tries this season.

Hill (1-3) finally got over that hump by coming up big when he needed to most. With two on in the second, he got Betancourt to ground into a double play. With the bases loaded and nobody out in the third, he struck out Richie Sexson looking at a sinker on the outside corner, then got Kenji Johjima to ground into a double play.

And with his pitch count rising in the fifth, Hill squirmed his way out of one last jam, overcoming Belliard´s fielding error and a misplayed fly ball by right fielder Elijah Dukes that turned into a two-run double to escape with the Nationals´ lead intact.

“To a point, I guess I can take the positives that I battled through what obviously wasn´t a good night for me,” Hill said. “But at the same time, anytime you gave up 12 hits, you´re not doing something right. I´ll take it with a grain of salt.”

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