- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

NEW YORK Since spring training, Shawn Hill has been the best pitcher on the Washington Nationals’ staff. He had the best spring of anyone in the rotation. He entered the season healthier than the rest of the pitchers. And though his first two regular-season starts didn’t result in wins, it wasn’t for lack of effort on his part.

Yesterday, the pieces finally all came together. With seven standout innings against the New York Mets, Hill led the Nationals to a 6-2 win, the first by any member of the Nationals’ rotation and confirmed manager Manny Acta’s longstanding, unwavering support.

“I have a lot of confidence in this kid,” Acta said. “I think he’s going to give us a chance every five days.”

The Nationals’ second win in three days featured an offensive breakthrough that included home runs from Dmitri Young, Ryan Church and Chris Snelling. It boasted some gutsy relief work from Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero, who each escaped possible disaster in the eighth and ninth innings.

But none of that would have been possible if not for Hill’s performance before 53,560 at Shea Stadium.

The 25-year-old right-hander gave up eight hits and a walk in seven innings, but he made just about every pitch he needed to when it counted most, including a critical sequence in the third inning that may have turned the game.

Washington led 2-1 when Endy Chavez hit a leadoff triple down the right-field line. With the heart of the Mets’ order (Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright) coming up, the Nationals were ready to concede the run.

“To be honest with you, with those guys coming up, you don’t expect him to do the job,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “That’s a tough lineup not to get a guy in from third base with the infield playing back.”

Yet Hill did it. He struck out Beltran on a changeup, then got both Delgado and Wright to hit weak comebackers to the mound.

“To get out of that the way I did, it’s a thrill,” Hill said. “But nine times out of 10, it’s probably not going to happen with those guys.”

With his confidence soaring, Hill (1-2) took control of the game. The only other run he gave up came in the sixth, when Wright reached second on an infield single and throwing error, then scored on Shawn Green’s opposite-field double.

But by then, Washington already owned a comfortable lead. Young started the offense in the second with a solo homer to center, his second with the Nationals. That set in motion a series of timely hits off New York right-hander Orlando Hernandez, the biggest of which came in the top of the sixth.

Church, having already extended his career-best hitting streak to 11 games, led off with a homer to center. Schneider followed with his third consecutive single, and that opened the door for Snelling to blast his first homer of the year, a two-run shot to give Washington a 6-1 lead.

As the Nationals celebrated in the dugout, Hernandez fired a first-pitch fastball right at Hill’s upper body. The ball struck the pitcher on his throwing hand, and before he could even start his trot down to first base, umpire Mike Winters gave “El Duque” the heave-ho.

Winters, believing Hernandez intentionally threw at Hill, used his discretion to eject him from the game.

“No,” Acta said. “I’m not an umpire. Obviously they’ve got a better feel for it than I do, but knowing Orlando, I wouldn’t think that he would try to hit the pitcher.”

Upon returning to the Mets dugout, Hernandez gestured to Hill and apologized.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” he said. “About the home run? It’s part of the game.”

The Nationals never attempted to retaliate, not that they needed to. Hill’s dominance on the mound was revenge enough.

“His makeup has always been above average,” Acta said. “This is a kid we brought up a few years back all the way from Double-A, and he has never been intimidated. He’s just been hurt before, and he’s on his way now to being a good pitcher at this level.”

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