- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

BALTIMORE — Washington Nationals starter Matt Chico has learned his share of lessons in his first major league season.

He has put one in particular to exceptionally good use.

“Pretty much the last six starts, I’ve really tried to focus on getting first-pitch strikes and really not worrying about what’s going to happen,” Chico said. “I’m just letting the defense take care of it.”

Chico’s prosperity actually stretches back to his last eight starts, including Wednesday’s stint of 62/3 innings against Baltimore in which he yielded three runs while picking up his fifth straight no-decision. Starting with a seven-inning outing at Milwaukee on May 7, Chico is 1-1 with a 3.52 ERA.

That’s solid work from the 24-year-old, who was picked up from Arizona as part of the package acquired for Livan Hernandez last August and hadn’t pitched above Class AA until this year.

His April 4 debut against Florida (six runs in four innings) was hardly memorable, but he cobbled together more respectable performances while struggling for much of April. His rise has been tied to a declining walk rate; after issuing 20 walks in his first six starts, he has yielded only 12 in his last eight.

“He put it together and beat the Braves and Mets, and ever since he’s been pretty consistent,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s not lights out, but he has been able to compete and give us a chance to win in pretty much every one of his outings in the last month and a half.”

A corresponding benefit is an ERA that has plummeted nearly two runs (from 6.59 to 4.66). It was an important turnaround for the Nationals, who have lost their other four starters from Opening Day to injury and have come to rely on Chico as part of a patchwork rotation.

“I think I’ve improved, more so command of my pitches, and I used more off-speed the last couple times,” Chico said. “I feel like I’ve learned a ton in the first two months, but I still haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m trying to learn what there is to learn.”

Church rests

Outfielder Ryan Church was out of the lineup yesterday after tweaking his right quadriceps after smacking an RBI single in the eighth inning Wednesday.

Church was replaced by pinch-runner Nook Logan and yielded his spot in left to Robert Fick last night, but Acta does not anticipate the injury lingering for long.

“It’s nothing major,” Acta said. “We just want to make sure he’s OK, that he gets a day off today and that he’s ready to go tomorrow.”

It also helped create an atypical defensive alignment for Washington. Fick made only his third start of the season in left, while Ronnie Belliard played first base for only the seventh time in his career, all this season.

Hill eager to throw

Right-hander Shawn Hill will begin throwing today for the first time since leaving his May 11 start, the first step toward returning to the success he enjoyed earlier in the season.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on the DL the past couple years with the surgery, so I’m definitely over sitting around and watching,” Hill said. “It’s good that we’re doing well, but at the same time I feel like a bump on a log.”

Hill was derailed by a right elbow injury, but a jammed left shoulder suffered April 20 while running the bases is an equally important concern. Acta said Hill will not return until the shoulder heals.

One of four starters on the disabled list, Hill was 3-3 with a 2.70 ERA in eight starts when he was placed on the disabled list.

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