WASHINGTON—Rich Hill will have plenty of time to reflect on an enigmatic first half after the Nationals bombed him Wednesday afternoon at RFK Stadium.
And which Hill shows up after the All-Star break could determine whether the Cubs are contenders or pretenders.
After Wednesday's 6-0 loss to the Nationals, manager Lou Piniella theorized that the young left-hander needs to keep his composure on the mound instead of stressing out over every hit off him.
"Basically, I think the time off during the break is going to do him good," Piniella said. "He fights himself too much out there. He wastes too much energy fighting himself instead of concentrating on getting hitters.
"I'm going to talk to him about that. You don't have to be perfect. He gets mad every time he gives up a base hit. You don't have to be perfect in this game. Nobody's perfect, and you learn you have to keep your concentration.
"That's the big thing for a pitcher. Why let the other team know things aren't going as you planned? I think the break will do him good. I think it will freshen up his arm and he'll come back and have a nice second half for us."
Hill gave up six runs on 10 hits over six innings, including a game-breaking grand slam to Dmitri Young during a five-run fifth inning. The Cubs' three-game winning streak was halted and they stood at 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the Central Division race after the day was done.
In his first six starts, Hill was off the charts. He went 4-1 with a 1.73 earned-run average, giving up only three home runs over 41 2/3 innings. Since then he has been a study in inconsistency. Over his last 11 starts, dating to May 11, Hill is 1-5 with a 5.20 ERA, allowing 15 home runs over 62 1/3 innings.
"It's a little frustrating going out there and getting your butt handed to you every day," he said. "It's not very fun at all."
Nationals left-hander Matt Chico threw seven shutout innings and relievers Saul Rivera and Ray King added a scoreless inning apiece as the Cubs were shut out for the first time since June 16. That day, Derrek Lee and San Diego's Chris Young tangled in the infield and the Padres' bullpen finished the job in a 1-0 victory at Wrigley Field.
Hill entered Wednesday's start with the fifth-worst run support among NL pitchers at 3.49 runs per nine innings. The Cubs' hitters did him no favors against Chico.
They trailed 1-0 on Ryan Zimmerman's homer in the first, then mounted a threat in the second, only to watch it fizzle. After Aramis Ramirez reached on an error leading off the second and Mark DeRosa singled, Angel Pagan and Mike Fontenot popped out and Rob Bowen grounded to second to end the inning. Bowen is 1-for-23 as a Cub, hitless in his last 22 at-bats.
Ron Belliard's RBI double in the fifth made it 2-0, putting Hill on the ropes. After Piniella ordered an intentional walk to Zimmerman to load the bases, Young deposited a 1-2 pitch into the Cubs' bullpen in left, the sixth grand slam of his career, to give the Nationals a comfortable 6-0 lead.
"We tried to set up the double play," Piniella said. "But the shortstop doesn't play in the bullpen."
The Nationals came into the game having lost 13 of their last 17 games, averaging only 2.7 runs per game over their previous 18 games.
But they managed to solve Hill on Wednesday in their biggest offensive output since scoring eight runs June 18 vs. the Tigers.
Meanwhile, the Cubs managed only four hits in seven innings against Chico, who now has a 0.47 ERA over his last three starts.
"We didn't know much about him," Lee said. "He pitched a good game, but I think we got ourselves out a lot with two strikes. We just didn't swing the bats well today."