- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta all but made it official before last night’s game against the Detroit Tigers: Right-hander Shawn Hill is the No. 2 man on his staff after John Patterson.

“Coming into spring training, you’ve got to keep everybody’s hope alive and also you want to keep guys on their toes, but the only concern we had with Shawn was being healthy,” Acta said. “The way Shawn pitched up here last year, it’s just about being healthy. If he’s healthy, he was a lock from the beginning. You just can’t tell him from Day One so he can come out here and take a slide.”

With more than two weeks remaining in the exhibition season, Hill said it’s comforting to know he’s being regarded for the starting rotation. But, in the same breath, Hill cautioned there’s a lot of spring training left and anything can happen.

“Until I hear from them, to be honest, I’ll just take it with a grain of salt,” Hill said. “It would be nice to think that way and go into it looking that way, but it’s definitely way too early to take that for granted.”

In three Grapefruit League starts, Hill has allowed just two earned runs in nine innings. In his last start Monday against a New York Mets lineup that featured Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Moises Alou and Carlos Beltran, Hill allowed just one run on five hits over four innings.

“If it’s coming from [Acta’s] lips, then I’m sitting well with him and in their minds,” Hill said. “Until we head north, I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Acta said right-hander Jason Simontacchi is also close to locking up a spot in the rotation. Simontacchi has allowed seven runs in 12 innings (5.25 ERA) during his three spring starts.

“He’s pretty close, yeah, but I wouldn’t pencil him in yet,” Acta said. “He made a case for himself.”

Church makes adjustments

Outfielder Ryan Church met with Acta yesterday to discuss his hitting mechanics. Church, who is hitting .160 (4-for-25) after 10 Grapefruit League games, said he will work with hitting coach Mitchell Page to open up his stance more.

On Wednesday night, Acta watched video of Church from the 2005 season, a year in which he batted .287 with 15 doubles, nine home runs, and 42 RBI in 102 games.

“Manny came back and looked at film from previous years and compared this spring training, and he said, ‘You can’t hit like that,’ ” Church said. “It’s been tough for me to get to balls. It’s like every time I take a good hack at it, I’m really locking myself up, and it’s caused because I’m too close. Manny said, ‘We know you can hit. Let’s go back to the basics. It makes everything simpler.’ ”

Up from the minors

With last night’s split-squad games, the Nationals were forced to add minor leaguers to fill out the bench for the game against the Tigers at Space Coast Stadium. Outfielders Darnell McDonald and Justin Maxwell, who starred collegiately at Maryland, and shortstop Ian Desmond were added to the Nationals’ roster.

“These guys are coming over here as a backup,” Acta said. “They could be here the whole day and not play. We’re not done yet. Now, with the cuts and stuff, we’ll be able to bring one of these kids once in a while. We’ll mix them up.”

More cuts

The Nationals cut their roster by nine to 43 last night. The club won’t announce the moves until this morning.

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