- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

— The easy explanation for the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the San Diego Padres would be centered upon Washington’s pitching staff, with blame spread between starter Shawn Hill, who lost all ability to throw a strike in the third inning, and relievers Charlie Manning and Joel Hanrahan, who lost the ability to keep the ball inside the park during the seventh.

That’s how the Padres, owners of one of the least-productive offenses in baseball, scored all four of their runs en route to victory before 18,774 at PETCO Park.

The more astute explanation for this one, though, would put the onus not on Washington’s pitching staff but on its own hapless lineup, which again kept its production at the plate to the bare minimum.

In a showdown between the two worst offenses in the National League, the Nationals emerged the loser, able to cobble together only two first-inning runs on Aaron Boone’s homer and then nothing else the rest of the way. Such inept showings put a great deal of pressure on a pitching staff.

“We’ve said it over and over: It puts a lot of pressure on everybody,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s not easy to win 2-1. It’s not easy. You’ve got to pretty much pitch lights-out, play outstanding defense and do everything perfect to win 2-1.”

The Nationals were far from perfect last night, particularly Hill, who allowed only two runs but labored throughout his five innings.

The club is watching each of Hill’s outings with great interest, all the more now since he had to skip his last turn after receiving a cortisone shot in his ailing right elbow. The 27-year-old hurler no longer is hiding the fact his forearm is constantly in pain, even when he’s not pitching, but he’s determined to gut his way through it all and somehow make it through the season in one piece.

That said, Hill has rarely resembled the dominant sinkerballer who blew away hitters last season when healthy, and last night was no exception.

Hill’s biggest problem: a surprising inability to throw the ball over the plate during a disastrous third inning in which he issued four walks, matching his career high for a full outing. All came with two outs, and even when he managed to force the opposition to put the ball in play, he still did so with the count full.

That mistake, a 3-2 sinker that stayed up in the zone with the bases loaded, was promptly drilled by Michael Barrett into left-center field, driving in two runs. And how did Hill follow that up? By walking No. 8 hitter Paul McAnulty to prolong the inning and establish a new career high.

By the time he finally struck out opposing pitcher Randy Wolf, Hill had thrown 36 pitches in the frame, raising his total through three innings to an astounding 82.

“I fell off the face of the earth with control,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve never done that before that badly. I couldn’t tell you why other than the lack of feel.”

Hill did settle down after that, keeping the Padres from scoring again, and he convinced Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire to let him retake the mound for the fifth and run his pitch count all the way up to 112 before he could no longer continue.

“I know the situation with my arm and everything, but I came in, and I told them I’m good to go,” he said. “I knew they didn’t want to, but I told them let me at least go the five. It’s my job to at least get five innings.”

The game was tied 2-2 after the fifth because the Nationals burst out of the gate in the first to take a quick lead on Wolf. Cristian Guzman laced a one-out double to left, then Boone (filling in again at third base while Ryan Zimmerman nurses a sore shoulder) launched an 0-1 offering from Wolf into the left-field bleachers for his fifth homer of the season, which tied him for second most on the roster despite his limited playing time.

But as has so often been the case this season, Washington’s offense went to sleep following the early outburst and was silenced the rest of the evening.

“I think it’s nothing more than, for the most, part struggling as a team to score runs,” Boone said of a Nationals team that is batting a collective .233. “It’s been all year whether we’ve scored early or not early.”

The Padres, meanwhile, had one more explosion in them. With two outs in the seventh, left-handed-hitting Adrian Gonzalez took an 0-1 pitch from Manning (the newest lefty in the Nationals’ bullpen) and drilled it the other way and just over Wily Mo Pena’s leaping attempt at the left-field wall.

Acta handed the ball over to Hanrahan, his gifted but erratic right-hander, who promptly threw his first fastball right down the middle to Kevin Kouzmanoff and watched as it sailed into the second deck in left field for the tack-on homer that all but sealed Washington’s fate.

“What matters is the number of runs we score at the end of the game,” Acta said. “We’re just not scoring enough. We started early and swung the bat well and scored two runs. But then after that, we couldn’t do anything.”



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