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Dodgers’ Hillegas Finds Media Tougher to Handle Than Braves in His Debut

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The kid lasted only about 15 minutes. He appeared nervous, unsure of himself and somewhat daunted by the onslaught. He finally asked for it to end so he could retreat to the training room and silently ice his right arm.

No, this wasn’t the account of Shawn Hillegas’ pitching performance in his major league debut Sunday at Dodger Stadium. It was his reaction to the media crunch that followed his impressive 8 innings of work in the Dodgers’ 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves before an appreciative crowd of 34,622.

Hillegas, brought up from Albuquerque Friday in hopes of giving the Dodgers a much-needed reliable fourth starter, shut out the Braves through eight innings before faltering in the ninth. The 22-year-old right-hander repaired to the dugout amid a standing ovation, having allowed 2 runs on 7 hits and having struck out 6.

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On the mound, Hillegas was in command most of the day. He handled the Braves as if he had faced them many times before, although he really had not even seen a major league game in person until Saturday. Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia was impressed by Hillegas’ unexpected composure and “mound presence.” “He showed me a lot for a pitcher making his major league debut, especially in a game we needed to win,” said Scioscia, referring to the fact that the Dodgers are eight games behind the National League West-leading Cincinnati Reds going into a four-game series starting tonight.

Sunday was one of those rare Dodger days in which they combined nearly flawless defense (two double plays) and sufficient offense (a John Shelby home run and run-scoring single leading an eight-hit attack) with solid starting pitching.

You can forgive Hillegas if he did not reveal a lot to the media afterward. He seemed overwhelmed by the attention. After doing the post-game radio show and three television interviews, he cut off writers after a few minutes, saying, “No more questions, please.”

But before he let his right arm sink into the bucket of ice and his thoughts of his performance on Sunday sink in, Hillegas did talk briefly about his dominating debut.

“I was nervous as heck out there, but not really as nervous as I thought I was going to be,” Hillegas said. “I think after the first inning I settled down and settled into it.”

Asked if he envisioned this kind of performance in his major league debut, Hillegas smiled and said: “No, I envisioned a shutout for myself. Yeah, I wanted to finish it, but it’s not my decision. I can’t do nothing about it. I told them I felt fine, but . . . “

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In the ninth, with most of the crowd anticipating a complete-game shutout for Hillegas, he gave up one run on a walk to pinch-hitter Gary Roenicke, a single to Gerald Perry and a fielder’s choice ground ball by Dale Murphy. When Hillegas allowed another single, Manager Tom Lasorda sent out pitching coach Ron Perranoski to take the ball away from him.

The crowd responded with boos when Perranoski appeared from the dugout, then a standing ovation as Hillegas left the field.

Reliever Tim Crews, another pitcher recently promoted from Albuquerque, gave up a single to Ozzie Virgil that scored Ken Griffey to make it, 5-2. But Crews struck out pinch-hitter Ted Simmons to nail down Hillegas’ first major league win and also earn his first major league save.

“It felt like the same old thing,” said the 26-year-old Crews, who had pitched in relief of Hillegas several times this season for Albuquerque. “Shawn always does a real good job, real consistent. I’ve seen him pitch like this, but I did think he’d be a little more nervous than this. He handled himself like he had been around for 10 years.”

Sunday had to be a boost for the much-maligned Dodger minor league system, which has taken considerable blame for the Dodgers’ decline.

But even though there may not be any more minor league pitchers ready to help the Dodgers, continued success from Hillegas will solve a major problem and perhaps help the Dodgers sneak back into contention. Hillegas, 13-5 during his Albuquerque stint, was the seventh pitcher the Dodgers have tried as their fourth and fifth starters in the rotation. Before Sunday, the Dodgers were 4-22 when they had to start somebody other than Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser or Fernando Valenzuela.

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“Let’s just put (Hillegas) down as our fourth and fifth starters,” Lasorda said. “I was impressed. He relaxed and didn’t seem uptight at all.”

The Braves didn’t wait long to test Hillegas. With two out in the first inning, he walked Perry, who then stole second. Up came Murphy, who hit two home runs Saturday. But Hillegas struck out Murphy on a 3-and-2 fastball.

“That pitch he made to Murphy in the first inning was his best pitch of the game,” Brave Manager Chuck Tanner said. “We couldn’t get any hits off the kid. He was throwing strikes, got a lot of ground balls and took a little something off his pitches. When you win 13 games in Albuquerque, that’s pretty good.”

Because of an appendectomy over the winter and complications resulting from another operation, Hillegas didn’t really contend for a spot on the Dodger roster during spring training.

“I lost 30 pounds because of that,” Hillegas said.

He lost his first two games in Albuquerque before winning 13 of his next 16 decisions. He had four complete games and one shutout in triple-A, including a one-hitter against Phoenix in his last start.

“Definitely, this is a big thrill,” Hillegas said. “Perry (Perranoski) went over the hitters with me before the game and I’ve seen (the Braves) play on TV. So, I knew what they were like.”

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Once he took the mound, Hillegas displayed a confidence and command that made it seem like he had more major league experience.

“I take that attitude into every game, from my first game in Albuquerque (this season),” he said. “I had to pitch as aggressively as I could.”

Said Scioscia: “He showed me a lot of composure. The way he held runners on (base) and moved the ball around the plate. It’s very important for a young pitcher to not change anything when he comes from triple-A (to the majors). He went to his strengths instead of the hitters’ weaknesses.”

The Dodger offense, even with Pedro Guerrero sitting out with a stiff neck, found plenty of weaknesses in Atlanta starter Charlie Puleo.

Shelby hit his 17th home run in the second inning. The Dodgers made it 2-0 in the third when Steve Sax singled home Dave Anderson, who had doubled. Mickey Hatcher doubled to leadoff the fifth and eventually scored on Scioscia’s sacrifice fly for a three-run lead.

The Dodgers added two runs in the eighth against relievers Jeff Dedmon, Ed Olwine and Joe Boever. Shelby and Scioscia each had run-scoring singles with two out.

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Dodger Notes

Pedro Guerrero’s neck injury, which kept him out of the lineup Sunday, is the same condition that has plagued him for a while. “It was bothering him more today,” Manager Tom Lasorda said. . . . Lasorda announced that Tim Leary will start Wednesday night’s game against the Cincinnati Reds.

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