Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Shawn Hill

As long as he's healthy, John Patterson is GUARANTEED to be Our Washington Nationals Opening Day Starter on April 2nd at RFK Stadium, in Washington, DC. After that date, you might as well start drawing ping pong balls scribbled with names of the 13 or so supposed starting pitchers vying for the other four spots available in Washington's Rotation. Even General Manager, Jim Bowden, told me the pitcher starting game four, my not even be around come game five. That's the realistic truth about Our Starting Pitching. The uncertainty is real, sadly.

Through seven exhibition games, Matt Chico has impressed in three innings of work and recorded the sole Nats Victory of the spring. But, Shawn Hill has been solid in his two starts--giving up just 1 run in five innings of work. A sixth round draft pick by The Montreal Expos in 2000, Hill was the very first Canadian to be drafted, developed and play for Montreal. Hill was born in Missassauga, Ontario, near Toronto. And, his Minor League progress was impressive, a 32-24 record over 82 games and a 3.16 ERA.

Unfortunately, elbow problems have hampered him since 1999. Shawn was drafted then by The San Diego Padres, but did not sign. When Montreal called him up to the Big Leagues in 2004, Hill pitched three games and DESTROYED his right throwing elbow, resulting in Tommy John (Ligament Replacement) Surgery shortly after and setting his career back, once again. He did not pitch a single inning, in 2005.

Recovered from surgery, Shawn started the 2006 season at AA Harrisburg, and pitched effectively. When Washington's Starting Pitching was so awful early last season, Hill got the call, back up to the Big Club. And, was lights out against The Los Angeles Dodgers on May 27th--going seven strong innings of one run ball. He was impressive, and I started watching him closely. Hill is a sinker ball pitcher. When he has that pitch working effectively, there is no better place to work off a mound, than RFK Stadium. Hill gave up just 4 runs in 20 innings of work at RFK in 2006.

But, the injury bug struck again. His elbow gave him problems. The workload of throwing so much after ligament replacement surgery, proved too much to over come. After Shawn was shellacked in his last two starts at Fenway Park in Boston and SkyDome in Toronto--Our Washington Nationals shut him down for the remainder of the season, as a precautionary measure.

Now, he's back, once again. I could not give up my opportunity to speak with him recently. Shawn Hill has the chance to pull his Major League Promise together in 2007. Watching from Section 320, you have to appreciate how composed Number 41 is on the mound. He has good presence. And besides, he has to be THE BEST BUNTING PITCHER on our team. If you've watched a lot of Nats baseball over the first two seasons in DC, you know how terrible Washington has been at the skill of bunting. We suck.

Shawn: You are supposedly healthy, you have to be excited about your chances?

“There are four spots definitely available. Something no other team (in MLB) has right now. Absolutely, I want to take advantage of it. I believe, there are a certain amount of guys here, that, in their mind (The Nationals), are the priority guys. The pitchers that will get the first chances to impress. If I can throw well and stay healthy, I should fall into that group. I would have to believe my chances are good here. And, believe me, staying healthy is my most important goal.”

You had that fantastic game last June on that gorgeous Sunday, June 11th, against The Phillies at RFK (Seven Shutout Innings, just two hits allowed). Everything looked bright for you. I would say you arrived that day in The Major Leagues. But the rest of the season, did not turn out as well. You got injured, again. Your thoughts?

“Yeah, it was frustrating. I got called up and threw really well for three games, my fourth game against The Yankees, I didn’t throw that bad. But, its just something I have always had to deal with. Last year was my first season back from Tommy John (Surgery). So, I kind of expected a setback. But, granted, its still disappointing. I got back up to The Majors earlier than I expected, last year. I did fairly well. So, I got excited, I was pumped up when that happened. I was trying to take it all in stride, because I knew an injury might recur.”

If that’s the case, has the team told you not to come back until you are 100% this year?

“Has the team told me that?" (Yes, that’s what I am asking—SBF), “No, they have not told me that. Not in that sense. But, as far as they know, and as far as I know, I should be 100%, anyway. The Doctor basically told me last year to take two months off, let the calcium deposits in my elbow go away. The rest will take care of itself. And, after all of that, the ligament was still perfectly in tact. So, I should be fine. Its just letting that elbow recover properly. And, I think I have done so.”

Does it bother you that each time you are taking a major step forward, you have taken a couple of steps backwards?

“A little bit. I was hurt my entire career coming up (in the Minors). My elbow was torn in 1999. To get up into the Big Leagues in 2004 (With Montreal), I felt like I was running up hill (no pun intended) that entire five year period. So, when I got there (with The Expos), it was a relief. But, at the same time, disappointing because my elbow finally blew out.”

“The past two years, I missed all of 2005, which amounted to an entire rehab year (due to surgery). And, last year, it was very upsetting to be shutdown. But, at the same time, I really knew, deep down, to expect that setback. I have talked with enough guys that have been through Tommy John, so I went into ’06 just hoping that I stayed healthy the entire year. And, I didn’t, but it was not crushing or earth shattering.”

But, you still seem positive?

“Yes, OK, I told myself. Now I have to get built back up again. This is now my chance, this season.”

Now, since you are back playing, competing for a spot in the rotation-What have The Nationals said you must do to help yourself?

“I must work on my mechanical things. I must work on my line when throwing the pitch. If I lose the ability to throw strikes, outside to a righty, inside to a lefty, that’s my biggest downfall. If I can do that, repeatedly, then usually everything else in my motion falls into place. We need to work on that. There are drills to help me do that stuff. But, aside from that, they (The Nationals) want me to stay healthy.”

You have dealt with Pitching Coach, Randy StClaire for a few years now. Despite all your setbacks, is he still a supporter of you?

“You know, I think so. We have never had a big sit down chat or conversation, that sort of thing—reiterating anything. But, I think he is somewhat on my side. He is definitely not against me in any way, shape or form.”

Are there others that have been by your side, supporting you in baseball?

“I have had certain pitching coaches along the way, that like the way I work. They appreciate the manner in which I handle myself on the mound. There has been more than one person who wants to see me do well in The Big Leagues. The guys who sort of give you the little pat on the butt: ‘Hang in there. We know you can do it.’ Those folks keep you going during the tough times, when the injuries have sidetracked me.”

What it like working with Brian Schneider, as your regular catcher?

“I love working with him. He was with me in Montreal. When we throw together, it works really well. Brian KNOWS THE HITTERS, he’s very helpful behind the plate. He makes the effort to know all the pitchers. He’s taken the time to understand what I can and can not do. Brian knows my strengths and weaknesses. And, with me its pretty obvious. I have a fastball and then a sinker. He knows how to use that against each and every hitter. Brian knows when to stick with a certain pitch. He knows when to change things up. He knows how to communicate. If I don’t like something, tell him. If you like it (Schneider’s pitch selection), tell him that too. So, we can do more. And, most importantly, he’s open to suggestion. We work pretty good together.”

Shawn and I briefly talked about his 9 game Big League Career. What was fabulous to hear was his complete recollection of each and everyone of those experiences. From the date, to the day, to the weather, to his performance on the mound. Each and every one of those appearances are treasured commodities, never to be forgotten. I can only hope he can add years of recollections to his baseball memories, starting in 2007. All of which led us into an interesting sidebar conversation about the fan support at RFK Stadium.

“There are guys that have played there (At RFK STADIUM) in bad times and good times. Every single one of them knows the fans seem to care, even if we are down. When I was there, the first game was a Saturday Game, against the Dodgers. We had a really good crowd. Then, I pitched against the Phillies for a day game, as well. We had a pretty good crowd, again. Both those games were good close games. So the crowd got into it. Against The Yankees (June 16th, 2006) IT WAS JUST RIDICULOUS!! 45,000, or whatever it was. Fans were yelling at EACH OTHER!! The Stadium was rocking. My experience on the mound, reacting to all that noise, was great. You could sense the mood and the fan support. That game against The Yankees was a FABULOUS EXPERIENCE! I can only hope we have many more like that. There could not have been a player in our Dugout that did not enjoy, not only the game in which I pitched, but all three of that series. Just a great weekend for baseball in Washington. The atmosphere did not go unnoticed.”

I actually posted on Nats 320 The Yankees Series was, by far the finest weekend of baseball, since The Nationals relocated to Washington. (SBF)

“The crowds are vocal at RFK. Hopefully this year, it will at least be the same. And, with the new ownership, we can get even more fans, and the atmosphere can improve even more. I am really looking forward to next year (2008). We are going to attract some more fans, and all that should be very exciting.”

Shawn Hill is a stand up guy. He's worked his way around injuries that many would have given up on, and quit. At 25 years old, he's back for more--understanding, if he ever is going to produce on the Major League Level, 2007 will be the make or break season for him.


Tom said...

SBF=Interview Machine

SenatorNat said...

I commented wryly last year that the Nats were collecting so many guys like Hill that we needed to cut out all the middlemen and just let Tommy John himself pitch all the games Patterson doesn't start!

Maybe just change the team logo to a Jiffy John!!

Seriously, nothing could be more fantastic than a whole rotation of earnest young guys - all feeding off of each other's energies and daily successes, and guidance and encouragement from St. Clair and Schneider, and getting on a roll!

Again, picture a rotation of Patterson, Beltran, O'Connor, Hill, Chico, (Bergmann): nobody a has-been. Yet...

My hunch is that Redding and Williams are going to be busts, as are most of the other veterans brought in as part of this starting pitching lottery. Hopefully, Acta moves quickly when they do the Spring swoon: looking fat, throwing too deliberately, walking in runs, freaking out over an error in the field, etc.

My instincts are that he would rather go with young and willing to throw strikes than guys who look and throw like Hernandez, but without any of his compensating qualities...

The key is for these young guys to bond together, go out there and pitch with some collective aggressiveness, and get 6-7 innings in regularly without themselves generating too many unearned runs. In the long run, that is best for the team. (RFK still allows for some mistakes, which Logan and the other decent fielding outfielders can "correct" for these young starters when Nats are home...)

There will be days when the bombs will burst in air and land near the whit seats - but there will probably be far more, where the staff performs average or even elevated. If so, the crowds will be behind them loudly - since it builds real hope for 2008 and beyond.

Trust in Kasten. All Good.