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BASEBALL >> Pitcher seeks a snap in his curve, not in his arm Hill's goal: Make his starts and not end up on the DL

February 25, 2008 12:16 am

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The Nationals have been impressed with the spring in both the arm and the legs of pitcher Shawn Hill. 0225sphillmain.jpg

So far in spring training, Shawn Hill's arm has been sound. The question is: Will it stay that way all season?

BY RICH CAMPBELL

VIERA, Fla.--

Shawn Hill folded his arms as he spoke last week, unintentionally revealing the topic of conversation. There it was on the top of his right forearm, near his elbow: a bright pink scar measuring about three inches long and a half-inch thick.

Chicks might dig scars, but pitchers sure don't, especially when they line their pitching arm and elbow. Hill has more than his fair share on his right side, and he's hoping his newest is his last.

After Hill's latest surgery, he desperately wants to put his lingering arm troubles behind him and pitch his first full season in the big leagues. Maybe then he can become the type of front-line pitcher the Washington Nationals saw during an injury-shortened 2007 campaign.

"My elbow has always been an issue since I signed, so they always protected it," Hill said. "I was always on a pitch count, never able to go a ton of innings. That's kind of been something bothering me."

There are several Nationals at spring training who, when speaking about their prospects for the upcoming season, must have the obligatory "if he can stay healthy" tacked on as an addendum. Hill is at the forefront of that group, and has been his entire career.

He was drafted by San Diego in 1999 but didn't sign with the Padres because of an arm injury. In 2001, it was elbow pain. A strained muscle in his upper back sidelined him the following year.

In September 2004, Hill had ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery on his right elbow. He has suffered from sporadic elbow and forearm soreness ever since.

But when Hill, 26, hasn't been limited by pain, he has shown why the Nationals are currently contemplating having him take the mound for the first game at brand-new Nationals Park 35 days from now.

He went 4-5 with a 3.42 ERA in 16 starts last season and had the lowest ERA of any Washington starter. If the Nationals had such a thing as an "ace," he was it.

But, of course, it's difficult to be an ace if you can't get off the disabled list.

"You can say the same things for a lot of guys in the game that have the stuff but just haven't been able to stay healthy: You're not an ace if you pitch a month and a half or two months," manager Manny Acta said.

Hill's promising 2007 was derailed by a set of maladies that could ensnare only the most injury-prone player.

He hurt his left shoulder while diving on the base-paths on April 20. He aggravated the injury 11 days later while covering first base on a ground ball.

The left shoulder injury--which turned out to be a partially torn labrum--caused him to alter his throwing mechanics. That, in turn, put undue stress on his right elbow and forearm. Within two weeks, he had started an 11-week stint on the disabled list.

Hill never fully recovered and had two offseason surgeries. One repaired the torn labrum and the other decompressed a nerve in his pitching forearm.

Now, he and the Nationals have their collective fingers crossed. So far, his performance in spring training has been encouraging.

"It feels nice and stable going through the delivery," Hill said. "I don't feel like I'm peeling off, which I was last year. There's nothing noticeable that I'm worried about right now."

Hill looked particularly good in pitching his first live batting practice of the spring on Saturday.

"One of our pitching coaches was telling our hitters, 'Don't worry about it guys. He's still about a month and a half away from getting sharp,'" Acta said proudly.

When Hill is healthy and at his best, his sinking fastball draws comparisons to those thrown by the game's best, such as Arizona's Brandon Webb.

He has toyed with the idea of developing a slider or cut fastball to complement his sinker, but nothing is in the works yet. Instead, Hill is focused on consistently locating his curve and change-up.

"The off-speed stuff, it's there and it's not there," Hill said after throwing his first live batting practice of the spring on Saturday. "If we were talking on March 25 and it's the same conversation, I wouldn't be happy at all. Being that it's still February, I'm happy with where it's at."

As Acta recently contemplated the top of his starting rotation, he was understandably tempted to consider the impact a healthy Hill would have.

But because of Acta's history with Hill in the Montreal organization, he knew better.

"How are we going to know unless a guy goes out there and starts 35 games? You just can't," he said. "It is a fact, him and John [Patterson] haven't been able to pitch a full season in the big leagues where you can make the right assessment about them."

And that is what really hurts Hill: the unknown, the unrealized potential. If he can't stay healthy through the entire 2008 season, his psyche would suffer the next scar.

"Ideally, I'd like to go 200-plus innings," he said. "If I can stay healthy and things go well, that would be my goal. We'll see if it happens or not."

Rich Campbell: 540/735-1974
Email: rcampbell@freelancestar.com





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