Na­tion­als, Hill Wig­gle Their Way Past Mets

Starter Works Out of Early Jam in Win

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Barry Svr­luga

NEW YORK, April 14 — When Endy Chavez leads off an in­ning with a triple, an in­fi­nite num­ber of po­ten­tial out­comes arise, most of them dev­as­tat­ing for whoever hap­pens to be op­pos­ing the New York Mets. On Satur­day af­ter­noon, he did just that in the third in­ning of a game the Mets trailed by one run. Shawn Hill stood on the mound for the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, and he could have been for­given had he started sweat­ing pro­fusely. The hit­ters be­hind Chavez: Car­los Bel­tran, Car­los Del­gado and David Wright.

“ To be hon­est with you, with those guys com­ing up,” catcher Brian Sch­nei­der said, “ you don’t ex­pect to be able to do the job.”

That Hill did the job Satur­day was per­haps the key point in the Na­tion­als’ 6- 2 vic­tory, the clean­est, most com­plete game this strug­gling team has played. It was

a win an­chored by the bot­tom of the lineup, where Ryan Church, Sch­nei­der and Chris Snelling con­trib­uted five runs scored, four driven in and six hits — in­clud­ing homers from Church and Snelling. It was a win helped by setup man Jon Rauch, who got a key dou­ble- play ball with two men on in the eighth, and locked down only af­ter closer Chad Cordero made hearts flut­ter by al­low­ing the ty­ing run to reach the on- deck cir­cle be­fore record­ing the fi­nal out in the ninth.

But un­less Hill han­dled him­self the way he did in the third in­ning, those sit­u­a­tions may not have pre­sented them­selves. The Na­tion­als’ mar­gin of er­ror is thin­ner than Ni­cole Ritchie on a diet, and an ex­plo­sive in­ning from the Mets — who are more than ca­pa­ble of such out­comes — could have taken a game Wash­ing­ton led 2- 1 and turned it com­pletely around.

“ That’s the key in­ning,” Sch­nei­der said.

To that point, Hill had al­lowed five hits and only held the lead be­cause Wash­ing­ton right fielder Austin Kearns gunned down Bel­tran at the plate to end the first. Chavez’s triple floated down the right field line, and the speedy out­fielder — a for­mer Na­tional who has be­come an im­por­tant part- time player in New York — got Hill to think­ing.

“ Hon­estly, I was go­ing into that [ think­ing I would] al­most con­cede that run,” Hill said. “ With those guys com­ing up, you don’t want to com­pletely con­cede it, but . . . ”

But let’s be re­al­is­tic. Bel­tran is com­ing off a year in which he hit 41 homers and drove in 116 runs. Del­gado has hit at least 30 homers in 10 con­sec­u­tive sea­sons. Wright be­gan this sea­son by set­ting a Mets record by col­lect­ing at least one hit in his first 11 games.

“ Nine times out of 10, it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to hap­pen with those three guys,” Hill said.

Na­tion­als Man­ager Manny Acta be­gan the se­quence with the in­field back, and Hill at­tacked Bel- tran. The 25- year- old right- han­der has been the Na­tion­als’ most con­sis­tent start­ing pitcher since the first day of spring train­ing in large part be­cause he gen­er­ally takes the ball, throws a strike, gets the ball back and does it again.

“ He doesn’t throw a lot of pitches,” pitch­ing coach Randy St. Claire said. “ He works ahead. He gets early con­tact. All those key things.”

He started Bel­tran with two strikes, not draw­ing a swing. That af­forded him the op­por­tu­nity to waste a cou­ple of pitches. But with the count 2- 2, Bel­tran swung through a change- up, the first out of the in­ning, and per­haps the key one.

“ Once you get the strike­out,” Hill said, “ then it’s, ‘ Okay, maybe I can pull this off.’ ”

So he did. He fell be­hind Del­gado 2- 1, but got him to tap one to the third base side of the mound, where Hill pounced on the ball, looked Chavez back and fired to first. And then he went di­rectly af­ter Wright, who jumped on the first pitch — and bounced it back to Hill. Thus, three hit­ters who com­bined to drive in 346 runs in 2006 couldn’t bring home a run­ner from third with no­body out.

The whole ex­change spurred Hill to a seven- in­ning out­ing in which he al­lowed two runs and be­came the first Wash­ing­ton starter to get a win this sea­son. And it re­vealed some­thing about him men­tally — “ He has never been in­tim­i­dated,” Acta said — as well as phys­i­cally.

“ It tells you how good his stuff is,” St. Claire said.

Good enough to win in the ma­jors. The Na­tion­als never had led a game by more than two runs all year, but they busted it open with a three- run sixth, fea­tur­ing the homers from Church and Snelling. And when Hill set down the Mets in or­der in the sev­enth, he be­came the first Wash­ing­ton starter to com­plete seven in­nings — an ac­com­plish­ment he might never have reached had he not taken on, and beaten, Bel­tran, Del­gado and Wright four frames ear­lier.

BY RAY STUB­BLEBINE — REUTERS

Shawn Hill be­came the first Na­tion­als starter this sea­son to com­plete seven in­nings and the first to earn a vic­tory.

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