- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

MIAMI — Now that the Washington Nationals are done waiting to get their top pitcher back, it’ll be a while before they get to see him throw to their top catcher.

Shawn Hill was activated from the 15-day disabled list last night and will make his first start today since Sept. 21, 2007. To make room for him, the Nationals placed catcher Paul Lo Duca on the DL retroactive to April 14 with a right hand contusion stemming from the pitch that hit him in Sunday’s win over the Braves.

“It’s not getting any better,” Lo Duca said. “I can’t play right now. It’s just setting back the team, so call somebody up that can play right now.”

Manager Manny Acta said Lo Duca was available as an emergency catcher, but he was still having trouble handling a bat. He has been hitting off a tee, and likely will get several at-bats in a minor league game once his hand heals.

“I’ve never really had an injury like this,” he said. “I can’t swing the bat aggressively. It hurts a little bit.”

Hill was shut down last September and received surgery to decompress the radial nerve in his right arm last offseason. He missed all of spring training with lingering soreness from the injury.

But after working through a rehab program that finished with two minor league starts, Hill will get the ball today.

“I’m sure tomorrow I’ll be pretty excited, butterflies, a little nervous, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Right now, I’m just looking forward to a lot of film and all that stuff to get ready for it.”

Hill likely will throw around 100 pitches today, or 11 more than he threw in his final rehab start for Class AAA Columbus.

His velocity topped out in the low 90s at the end of his rehab, and if he can maintain that while keeping command of his fastball today, he’ll be happy.

“If I’m throwing my 89 to 90 [mph], have reasonable control and not trying 150 percent, then I would say I’m fine,” Hill said. “The off-speed stuff, with me, it’s not my go-to stuff. As long as my fastball command and velocity is reasonably well, that’s all I need.”

Lopez leads off

In the Nationals’ latest attempt to inject some life into their offense, second baseman Felipe Lopez batted leadoff last night.

But that move could have more lasting ramifications. With starter Ronnie Belliard struggling, it might give Lopez a chance to win his job back.

Both Lopez and Belliard likely will start tonight — Acta said Lopez will play shortstop to give Cristian Guzman a night off — but the manager sounded as though he’s ready to reconsider his lineup if Lopez shows some consistency.

“He’s a guy who’s used to playing every day,” Acta said. “The attitude he’s shown since spring training, I think that’s the reason I’m leaning more toward giving him an opportunity to play more and, who knows, maybe get his job back.”

Belliard won the second base job after a strong spring training, while Lopez chafed at the idea of a bench role in March. But since then, Lopez has filled in wherever he’s been asked, including a stint in left field before Wily Mo Pena came back.

Lopez came into last night’s game hitting .194 but went 3-for-5 with two runs scored and a stolen base. If he can produce on a regular basis, he’ll get a chance to play every day.

“We do have to shake it up a little bit,” Acta said. “Obviously, it’s not working right now.”

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