- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — On the heels of yet another quality pitching performance, Shawn Hill was asked whether he’s starting to feel secure yet about a spot in the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day rotation.

“No, no,” he insisted. “I’d like to. I feel like I’m in a good position, and it’s gotten better each time out, I think. But there’s still three or four more outings, and we’ve got what, 25, 26 pitchers still here? If I don’t throw well those three outings and everybody else kind of jumps by, I’m quickly forgotten about.”

Hill’s modesty aside, there’s little chance of that happening now. The 25-year-old right-hander hasn’t just outperformed every other rotation candidate in Nationals camp. He’s lapped the field.

Hill was at it again yesterday at Space Coast Stadium. Facing a top New York Mets lineup that included regulars Jose Reyes, Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright and Moises Alou, he allowed one run in four innings.

In three spring training starts spanning nine total innings, Hill has allowed two earned runs and has yet to walk a batter. And he admittedly didn’t even have his best stuff yesterday.

“When it comes down to it, I’m not as happy with how I threw as I could be,” he said. “But results-wise, it kind of makes me feel a little bit better knowing I didn’t throw exactly how I wanted to and I still kind of got away with it with this lineup.”

That’s the kind of performance that leaves Washington manager Manny Acta raving and has everyone else in camp believing Hill is a lock to make the rotation, perhaps even as the No. 2 starter behind John Patterson.

“I thought he did a tremendous job,” Acta said. “I hope he can get those results this season without having his command.”

The Nationals have never questioned Hill’s abilities. He was on track to become a rotation mainstay with the Montreal Expos in 2004 before blowing out his elbow and needing ligament replacement surgery.

It has taken more than two years, but Hill is completely healthy again. He said he’s experienced some tightness in his forearm for the last week but insisted it’s nothing to be concerned about.

If Hill’s track record is any indication, when he’s healthy, he’s effective. He has made 93 career minor league appearances and gone 35-27 with a 3.12 ERA. In nine major league starts, he’s only 2-5 with a 6.90 ERA, but those numbers are skewered by the fact he was hurt.

A sinkerball specialist, Hill’s best trait may be his ability to keep the ball on the ground. In 5421/3 career innings as a professional pitcher, he has surrendered only 19 home runs.

“We’ve never had any doubts about Shawn Hill, even in the past when I was here,” Acta said. “It was just a matter of staying healthy, being able to stay out there. Not everybody has the type of sinker and secondary pitches that kid has.”

Certainly not anyone else battling with Hill for four open spots in the Washington rotation. Hill may have helped clear up the picture with his performance during the last month, but the rest of the group is a muddled mess.

Three right-handers who were signed to major league contracts and placed on the 40-man roster over the winter (Tim Redding, Jerome Williams and Joel Hanrahan) have been battered around by opposing hitters. That trio has a collective 17.69 spring ERA, having allowed 21 hits and 11 walks in 92/3 innings while striking out only four.

Non-roster invitee Colby Lewis has been tagged for eight runs and 11 hits in 41/3 innings. Left-hander Chris Michalak was reassigned yesterday, taking himself out of the equation. Beltran Perez and Billy Traber are now being looked at as relievers.

Rookie Matt Chico and journeyman Jason Simontacchi have shown flashes of success but are far from locks yet. And right-handers Jason Bergmann and Levale Speigner have thrown themselves into the mix with surprising performances in limited time so far.

So Hill’s emergence as the one truly effective member of the rotation derby has been both a pleasant and necessary development for the Nationals. Acta won’t go so far as to guarantee him a roster spot, but it’s easy to read between the lines.

“He’s done a terrific job,” the manager said. “We’ve got three weeks to go. Long time.”

And Hill concurs. All signs point to his inclusion on the Opening Day roster, but he’s taking nothing for granted.

“Until March 29 when we head north, I’m not going to feel secure,” he said.

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