- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

With the Washington Nationals still opting to be cautious with starter Shawn Hill, it appears left-hander Matt Chico will return from the bullpen to make Hill’s scheduled start tomorrow against the Phillies.

Hill said yesterday he was feeling better after receiving a cortisone shot in his right elbow Saturday morning. The Nationals will see how he’s feeling after playing catch today, but unless Hill has improved enough to convince the team there’s no further risk of injury, Chico will get the call.

The left-hander was sent to the bullpen after his May 3 start dropped his record to 0-5 and raised his ERA to 6.87, but he has a 1.42 ERA in three relief appearances since then.

He said the nature of his bullpen work — usually long relief in games the Nationals are trailing — has helped him throw with the kind of relaxation he was searching for when he was pulled from the rotation.

“I’ve felt like I’ve kind of found myself a little bit,” he said. “It’s made me realize how much I was pressing before. I think it’s really helped me calm down and get back to where I want to be.”

While manager Manny Acta said the team could call up a starter from the minor leagues if needed, the fact that Chico is rested, available and pitching better out of the bullpen makes giving him the start “the right thing to do.”

“He hasn’t come into a crunch-type situation, but still, this is the big leagues,” Acta said. “He has looked comfortable, and he’s throwing the ball well.”

Belliard to DL

The Nationals placed second baseman Ronnie Belliard on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to Friday with a strained left calf. They likely will recall right-handed reliever Chris Schroder today.

Belliard said he strained the muscle in Baltimore over the weekend. He tried jogging before the game but said that wasn’t helping loosen it up.

“It was feeling better today,” he said. “It just got tight again.”

Handling outfield woes

Right fielder Austin Kearns missed his second straight game after bruising his right elbow during batting practice Saturday. X-rays on Kearns’ elbow were negative, and he will undergo an MRI tomorrow.

Kearns’ injury is just the latest setback for a group of outfielders that might be struggling more than any other part of the team right now. The unit entered last night’s game with the worst batting average (.207), on-base percentage (.294), slugging percentage (.285) and RBI total (42) among major league outfielders, though Lastings Milledge went 2-for-4 with two RBI last night.

Acta has used a different combination of outfielders in each of the last seven games, jointly trying to get Elijah Dukes at-bats in his return from the disabled list, help Wily Mo Pena and Kearns emerge from season-long slumps and giving Milledge the chance to learn how to play center field every day.

“There’s only so much you can do because every single one of them is struggling,” Acta said. “Regardless of who you put out there, it’s like a couple nights ago when I look at the bench and I’m like, ‘What am I going to do? Pinch hit a guy who’s struggling for another guy who’s struggling?’ The good thing about it is everybody’s getting their chance to get some at-bats. It’s a fair fight.”

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