- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

PHOENIX | Shawn Hill is not himself right now, and he knows it.

Since debuting in the big leagues four years ago, the Washington Nationals right-hander has relied on his sharp-dropping sinker to get hitters out, using that one dominant pitch with regularity.

That sinker, though, has eluded Hill for much of this season, much to his dismay. Whether a result of the forearm pain that has become commonplace every time he throws, a mechanical glitch or something else, he simply can’t throw his most effective pitch with any consistency.

And that leads to outings like yesterday’s at Chase Field, in which Hill served up a three-run homer three batters into his afternoon and wound up lasting only four innings in the Nationals’ 5-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“I haven’t been myself,” said the 26-year-old, who is now 0-2 with a 4.67 ERA in eight starts. “I can go back and look at last year. Even when I was hurting a little bit, my fastball was sinking. [Now] it’s just not biting at all.”

Of course, it didn’t make much difference as Washington’s woebegone offensive attack was held scoreless by the Diamondbacks for the second straight day, managing a mere four hits off starter Dan Haren and a pair of relievers.

That after getting thoroughly dismantled by early season Cy Young Award favorite Brandon Webb during Saturday night’s 4-0 loss. In neither contest did the Nationals advance a man past second base.

“We faced two tough pitchers,” said manager Manny Acta, whose club is now batting a major league-low .231 for the season. “We’ve been struggling offensively, and they got the best of our guys.”

It didn’t help yesterday when Washington’s struggling lineup had to try to snap out of its funk despite trailing by three runs almost from the start. Hill put his teammates in that hole by allowing back-to-back singles to open the first, then leaving a 1-1 curveball over the plate to Orlando Hudson and watching as it sailed over the right-field fence for a three-run homer.

“Three batters in, three runs down,” Hill said. “That’s my fault entirely. It’s completely unacceptable.”

Things never got better for Hill. He allowed a leadoff double to Chris Snyder in the second and later allowed him to score on a wild pitch that just nicked catcher Jesus Flores’ outstretched glove. Chad Tracy added a solo homer in the third on a flat sinker, and by the time Hill completed the fourth inning, his day was done.

It was his shortest start in nearly four years. Not since a 1 1/3-inning disaster against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 9, 2004, had Hill failed to at least make it into the fifth inning.

“Nothing at all worked,” he said.

Compounding Hill’s frustration was the fact that his forearm, a source of nearly constant pain every time he has thrown this season, actually felt fine throughout yesterday’s game. His velocity was strong. He felt great warming up in the bullpen. And then …

“Just because he’s healthy, there’s no guarantee that every five days he’s going to go out there and pitch great,” Acta said. “He’s another young guy that we’re hoping he develops into a good pitcher. But he’s healthy, and that’s what we care about.”

Because of that last fact, Hill is hopeful he might be able to go out to the bullpen in a couple of days and work on his mechanics in an attempt to fix what ails him, something he hasn’t been able to do this season because of the forearm pain.

“Obviously, something’s out of whack delivery-wise,” he said.

Something’s also out of whack with the Nationals’ lineup, which prolonged its miseries during this 2-4 Western swing through San Diego and Arizona.

In its last four losses, Washington hit .169 with one homer and four extra-base hits. Acta’s squad scored a total of four runs in those games, plenty of reason for a clubhouse full of young and unproven hitters to get down on themselves.

“We’ve got to keep plugging away at this thing,” third baseman Aaron Boone said. “You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to do it and get better.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT CHASE FIELD

PHOENIX - Diamondbacks TV analyst Mark Grace apparently didn’t like the fact that few fans showed up at games with hand-made signs supporting their favorite players and said so on the air recently. All of a sudden, there’s been an influx of signs throughout Chase Field, thanks in part to a make-your-own sign station. The best one this weekend was spotted yesterday, held up by a young woman who obviously understands how the pitching-heavy Diamondbacks are built to win: “This chick digs the quality start.”

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BY THE NUMBERS

261 Games the Nationals went without getting a complete game from one of their starting pitchers before Jason Bergmann went the distance Saturday night. It was the majors’ longest drought, dating back to Pedro Astacio’s shutout of the Braves on Aug. 15, 2006.

TOMORROW’S GAME

Cardinals RHP Kyle Lohse 5-2, 4.02

Nationals LHP Odalis Perez 2-4, 4.14

7:10 p.m. MASN

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