Hill solid, but Nats held down in finale

Hill solid, but Nats held down in finale

WASHINGTON -- After one week, the Nationals are now 1-6. For most of that time, they have not have not been able to hit with runners in scoring position, and their starting pitching has put them behind the eight ball in the first inning in five of their seven games. Only the bullpen has been pleasantly consistent.

The Nationals' slow start was expected by most experts, who predicted that they would finish near the bottom in 2007. But right-fielder Austin Kearns says there isn't panic in the locker room about the slow start as the team expects to turn things around -- hopefully against the Braves starting on Tuesday night.

"I laugh at people who press the panic button after the first week," Kearns said. "Yeah, it hasn't gone well, we know that. But if we hit the panic button after the first week, come August, I guess, you guys expect to see guys hanging themselves in here. It's a long year. You can't hit the panic button. Yeah, we know we have to get better, but you keep playing. That's all you can do."

The Nationals battled on Sunday afternoon, but they still came up on the losing end and were defeated by the Diamondbacks, 3-1, at RFK Stadium. The Diamondbacks swept the four-game series and Washington is now on a four-game losing streak.

Right-hander Shawn Hill pitched the best game of the season for the Nationals, going 6 2/3 innings, while giving up two runs on six hits. It was the first quality start for Washington this season. However, Washington found itself behind in the first inning as the Diamondbacks scored two runs.

Orlando Hudson drove in Conor Jackson with a double, while Eric Byrnes had an RBI groundout to drive in Hudson. Hill would blank the Diamondbacks for the next 5 2/3 innings before being lifted in the seventh inning for left-hander Micah Bowie.

Hill sounded like a person who was not satisfied with his outing. Instead, he focused more on putting the Nationals behind in the game.

"The outing wasn't bad. It was just that first inning again," he said. "We are still falling behind and [digging] ourselves a hole. It's tough to play from behind every day. We are going to get runs. It's just a matter of avoiding that first inning. We are coming out of the gate and we are down [almost] every game in the first inning, it seems like. You can give up a couple. It's not a big deal, but I think it's a little demoralizing every time you go up to hit leading off and you are down 2, 3-0. You just have to keep that first inning scoreless."

Manager Manny Acta focused more on Hill's quality start, than the fact that he gave up two runs. The skipper continues to talk about how talented Hill is on the mound and that health will be the only reason to keep him down.

"This kid is going to give us a chance every five days. I always said that if this guy is healthy, he can compete and give us a chance," Acta said. "The first inning may look like a trend -- but he shut them down. We couldn't get a big hit with guys in scoring position. Our numbers continue to be very poor."

Washington went on a streak of 30 at-bats without getting a hit with runners in scoring position. It took until the eighth inning of Sunday's game to finally get that hit when Kearns singled to left-center field off reliever Brandon Lyon to score Ryan Zimmerman at second base.

"We've had some good at-bats with runners in scoring position and some guys have hit the ball hard," Kearns said. "We just haven't found the hole. That's all you can do is have good at-bats. The longer it goes, the more you hear about it. Sometimes you try harder and it usually works the opposite way."

The Nationals had no answers for Livan Hernandez, who pitched seven shutout innings. Hernandez even had a no-hitter for 5 2/3 innings before Zimmerman doubled over the head of Byrnes in right field.

Like he did during his three-plus years with the Nationals/Expos, Hernandez mixed his pitches and his former teammates had problems hitting the slow curveball.

"He doesn't give you anything to hit. He has perfected that for years," left fielder Kory Casto said. "It doesn't matter if he doesn't throw hard. He locates -- in and out -- with everything. We hit some balls good, but right at people. There is nothing you can do about that."

Washington's biggest opportunity to score against Hernandez occurred in the seventh inning. The team had runners on first and second and one out, but Robert Fick flied to center field, Dmitri Young flied out to deep left field and Brian Schneider grounded out.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.