Nats take late lead, but fall to Phillies

Nats take late lead, but fall to Phillies

WASHINGTON -- During Tuesday's game, manager Manny Acta turned to pitching coach Randy St. Claire as the two watched Shawn Hill pitch.

"It would be nice to have this guy 35 times a year," Acta said.

Hill did not disappoint in his first start since May 11. He threw six shutout innings, but that wasn't enough as the Nationals lost, 3-2, to the Phillies at RFK Stadium.

While Hill re-established himself as the team's top pitcher, the Nats' offense went dormant, coming alive only for a Tony Batista pinch-hit two-run double in the seventh inning.

That was enough for the lead until Jon Rauch allowed a go-ahead two-run homer to Russell Branyan, a pinch-hitter the Phillies acquired last Thursday for cash considerations. Rauch's pitch was a fastball that Branyan jumped all over, sending it to right field for what proved to be the winning blast.

"I feel awful for what happened," Rauch said. "[Hill] pitched great, especially against the heart of the lineup."

Acta said that Rauch wasn't to blame, though, because the home run was preceded by a pair of plays he had little control over.

Jayson Werth reached base to start the rally when third baseman Ryan Zimmerman overthrew first base on a ground ball, allowing Werth to get to second base.

"It was just a bad throw," Zimmerman said. "You never want to do that. If you want to win, you can't do things like that."

Zimmerman has made some dazzling plays during his time in Washington, but occasionally misses grounders that would seem to be much easier. Acta said that he thought Zimmerman's footwork was off and planned to work with the young third baseman.

The grounder was followed by a bloop RBI single from catcher Carlos Ruiz, who scored on Branyan's home run. It was Branyan's first at-bat since he joined the Phillies.

Hill and Philadelphia starter Kyle Lohse dueled for six scoreless innings, with Lohse giving up two runs in the seventh. Neither received a decision.

It was Hill's first outing since spending three months on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder. He also suffered from a sore right elbow during that time. He said after the game that he felt fine, but his shoulder problem was preventing him from hitting well.

"I've got to try to catch them sleeping, basically," he said. "I'm not allowed to swing right now."

Hill said that he felt fine on the mound, but the coaches agreed to limit his pitches because he had not thrown more than 60 in his rehab starts. He left Tuesday's game after 79 pitches, and was backed up in the seventh inning by Luis Ayala, who struck out the three batters he faced.

Hill allowed only one hit, a a blooper to left-center that left fielder Ryan Church and center fielder Nook Logan both reached in time, but backed off at the last moment. Hill said that his pitches were much better than during his rehab starts, but he came out with too much energy.

"It took me a couple innings to settle down and get to where I wanted to be," he said. "It's different in a big league stadium as opposed to a Triple-A stadium."

The righty added that while Acta has declared him the team's No. 1 pitcher, Hill has to prove it over a longer period than the nine starts he's had this season.

"If I go out there and end up with a 5 or 6 ERA, I'm just going to be lumped in as an average guy," he said.

His pitching looked average on Tuesday for a different reason -- the Phillies matched him throw for throw. In addition to Lohse's solid outing, closer Brett Myers struck out all three Nats in the bottom of the ninth to seal the victory.

The Phils stayed within three games of the Mets in the National League East with the victory. Acta noted that the team would have to play perfect ball to contend with the division's top contenders.

That goal becomes a little closer when Hill takes the mound.

Michael Phillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.