- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

JUPITER, Fla. | The symbolism was almost too obvious to miss. After yet another spring rife with anti-inflammatory medication, flat-ground throwing sessions and the three most respected and feared words in sports medicine - Dr. James Andrews - Shawn Hill took the mound for the Washington Nationals, revved up his right arm and produced two strikeouts and a flyout.

Hill needed all of four minutes and 16 pitches to get through the first inning against the Florida Marlins on Monday. He asked for a second inning, which was met with a quick denial from pitching coach Randy St. Claire and some good-natured heckling from manager Manny Acta.

“I knew the answer before I asked, but I had to ask,” Hill said.

Then Jordan Zimmermann, perhaps the most impressive pitcher among the crop of young arms the Nationals are counting on as insurance on Hill, took the mound for the second inning and matched Hill’s ante with two strikeouts and a flyout. But Zimmermann stayed in the game, striking out six.

If Hill is healthy to start the year, Zimmermann still might not make the team. The difference this year, though, is Hill no longer has the benefit of the doubt.

While the Nationals still hope the right-hander is part of their Opening Day rotation, they have run out of time to be patient with him. Hill threw just his second inning of the spring Monday and said he’s pitching pain-free for the first time since 2007. But Washington’s strategy for handling Hill has been consistent from the first day of spring training; he will be in the rotation if he can throw, but the club won’t be caught unprepared if he’s not.

“We’re not making any plans around him at all,” Acta said. “That’s the way we approached it during the offseason. That’s the way we approach it right now. We’re not making our rotation revolving around him.”

The Nationals traded for left-hander Scott Olsen and signed right-hander Daniel Cabrera, adding two veterans to their rotation in the span of a month. They have Zimmermann, Shairon Martis and Collin Balester all ready to fight for two spots if Hill can’t go - and one if he can. It’s a relatively seamless plan and one that treats Hill as a bonus, not a necessity.

For Hill, the great tragedy in all of it is that he’s still far too young to be playing the role of the broken-down pitcher. He’s only 27, less than two years removed from a fleeting bit of transcendence in the second half of 2007 that had the organization hoping he was an ace-in-waiting.

His numbers that season - a 4-5 record and a 3.42 ERA - don’t really illustrate how good the Ontario, Canada, native was.

In twin five-week stretches, he made 11 quality starts, never needing more than 102 pitches as his sinking fastball coaxed one groundout after another out of hitters. His last two starts of the year raised his ERA 55 points, but from April 14 to Sept. 16, it never jumped above 3.00.

Of course, part of the reason for that was the problem that has always been there with Hill. His two stints were bridged by a 94-day layoff for a subluxation of his left shoulder. In his last start before going on the disabled list that May, Hill left after five innings with a no-hitter, that promise frozen for three months.

In some ways, it has never really thawed out. He was shut down at the end of the 2007 with forearm troubles and pitched through a half-season last year on cortisone shots, Percocet and square-jawed resolve. He finally hit the disabled list in June after the pain became so great that it sapped Hill of his throwing sessions between starts and his sinking fastball of its bite.

Multiple visits to some of the country’s most renowned doctors, including Andrews and the Mayo Clinic’s Bernard Morrey and Scott Steinmann, have produced no guideposts to solving Hill’s arm troubles. Andrews did not find structural damage in Hill’s elbow when he examined it March 6.

On Monday, Hill threw only with the help of some massage therapy, an extended warmup and an anti-inflammatory medication - “no painkillers,” he said.

The result was a brief glimpse of vintage Hill but a large enough sample to show why the Nationals don’t want to give up on him.

He deals with pain as matter-of-factly as he talks about it, for the simple reason he knows he might not have a choice. Injuries already have cost large chunks of time and countless dollars; he got just $775,000 out of his first arbitration hearing this year. The only course Hill has left is to grab the ball, hope the pain stays away and grit his teeth if it does.

“If I go through a short period, and I feel fine the whole time, you kind of jump past that hurdle,” Hill said. “[Pain] is something I’m going to have to deal with - at least for a short period of time.”



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