Nationals, Hill Wiggle Their Way Past Mets
Starter Works Out of Early Jam in Win
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.
Shawn Hill became the first Nationals starter this season to complete seven innings and the first to earn a victory.