- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

It has been nearly two years since Shawn Hill earned his first and only major league win, a haphazard, five-inning effort against the Toronto Blue Jays in which the then-Montreal Expos right-hander was bailed out by reliever Claudio Vargas.

It wasn’t quite the way Hill, a native Canadian, envisioned his first one: beating his favorite childhood team … on the Fourth of July … in Puerto Rico … just a few weeks before he would blow out his elbow and have ligament replacement surgery.

But yesterday’s 6-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium — in which Hill threw seven innings of two-hit ball — was more like it. And that had the 25-year-old smiling.

“The first time … I got pretty lucky because Claudio Vargas came in and saved my butt,” Hill said. “Today was a little different story. Plus, coming back from everything … it’s a little more satisfying today.”

Hill’s gem certainly was satisfying for the Washington Nationals, who rode his lights-out performance and took advantage of Jose Guillen’s return from the disabled list to capture yet another series to extend their impressive run.

After taking three of four from the Phillies, the Nationals (30-34) have now won nine of 11 to catch the Atlanta Braves for third place in the NL East. They’ve also won six of their last seven series.

“This team looks like the team from last year when we got that run in the first half,” said Guillen, who had two doubles and two RBI in his first start in 17 days. “Everybody was just joking around there in the dugout and the clubhouse. … The last two days I have been here, I have seen that enthusiasm. That’s great.”

When the Nationals hit their low point last month, falling 14 games below .500, manager Frank Robinson said his players couldn’t fall into the trap of thinking they could get it all back at once. They had to start winning series, taking two of three, chipping their way back toward respectability.

“I really believed in that before we got started on this roll,” Robinson said. “That’s the focus and that’s what our goal is: to start winning series. This was a big game for us, to win this series. It’s like a two-game swing.”

Hill (1-1) was most responsible for yesterday’s win. In seven innings, he allowed two hits — a single by Ryan Howard in the second and a double by Howard in the fourth. Otherwise, the Phillies were helpless against him, even though he had so much trouble gripping the ball that he uncorked one curveball all the way to the backstop.

It was just about the only time Hill wasn’t in complete control yesterday. He’s made only six starts in his career, but impressed the Nationals with his veteran moxie.

“He’s not afraid,” said catcher Robert Fick, who joined Daryle Ward in hitting a homer in the eighth inning to put the game out of reach. “He’s not out there nibbling. He’s keeping the ball down and keeping the ball over the plate. He’s well beyond his years.”

And he’s presented Washington with a surprising dilemma: What to do with him once John Patterson returns from the DL? Patterson is scheduled to make a rehab start tonight at Class AAA New Orleans, and if that goes well, he could be ready to start Saturday against the New York Yankees.

Hill figured to be the odd-man out, but now that he’s posted a 1.80 ERA in three starts, the club might have to rethink its position. In fact, there isn’t a logical choice for a demotion among the Nationals’ current five-man rotation.

“When that time comes, we’ll make a decision,” Robinson said. “I don’t concern myself or worry about those things right now, because I don’t know when Patterson or [Pedro] Astacio will be ready to come back. In the meantime, I’ll focus on the people who are here and stay positive and let [Hill] go out there and pitch like he did today. That’s not a dilemma.”

Robinson might face a tough decision with Guillen, as well, after the struggling right fielder returned yesterday from a strained hamstring to go 2-for-3 and drive in the Nationals’ first two runs of the game with a third-inning double off rookie Cole Hamels (1-1).

Robinson hit Guillen third yesterday, with Jose Vidro getting the afternoon off. But he admitted before the game he might have to bump Guillen all the way down to sixth with the current heart of the order (Vidro, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman) performing well.

“I’ve got to start producing and helping this team to win,” Guillen said. “There’s no excuse now. I’ve got to start playing much better and start hitting in situations as a team pick-me-up.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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