Chicago is abuzz with the Cubs in first place and looking like the favorite to win the National League pennant, and possibly break a 100-year drought without a World Series win. No one wishes he were part of it more than Rich Hill.
The former Milton High School star lefthander is trying to find the strike zone again in places like Mesa, Ariz., and Daytona, Fla. Trying to continue a career that was heading in the right direction a year ago, when he finished with an 11-8 record and 3.92 ERA, and as a result was penciled in as Chicago's fourth starter this year behind Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Jason Marquis.
Hill insists he does not have "Steve Blass Disease" named after the former Pirates starter who lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. Catchers Mackey Sasser and the Red Sox' Jeff Bailey, and second baseman Steve Sax suffered from throwing disorders that ruined or sidetracked their professional careers. Rick Ankiel is one of the lucky ones; he was able to transform from power pitcher to center fielder. Bailey is a designated hitter, first baseman, and outfielder in Pawtucket.
"I don't even know what Steve Blass Disease is," said the 28-year-old Hill. "I hurt my back. You can ask anyone who's ever played the game that when you suffer an injury, especially a pitcher, it throws your mechanics off. That's what's happened to me. I don't have anything structurally wrong with my back, but I've had back spasms and I've had to do my rehab and stretching. I'm much better."
The problem isn't mental?
"Absolutely not," he said. "I can still throw strikes. When I had the back issues, I couldn't throw my changeup where I wanted. I was just off. Now I'm getting my rhythm back. I'm becoming more aggressive. I know I'm only pitching at A ball, but that doesn't matter. It feels better. I'm more in control. I just feel like I'm getting back to where I was."
Hill was removed from the Cubs' rotation this season after five starts (1-0, 4.12 ERA). He had walked 18 batters in 19 2/3 innings. The last straw for manager Lou Piniella came when Hill was unable to get out of the first inning May 2 against St. Louis, walking four batters, including Yadier Molina with the bases loaded.
Hill was demoted to Triple A Iowa and didn't improve. He was 2-4 in seven starts, walking 28 in 26 innings. With his 12-6 curveball and 90-plus-mile-per-hour fastball, Hill struck out 32 during that span, but the walks were hard to ignore. The Cubs decided to go back to the drawing board and sent Hill to rookie ball in Mesa.
"I had a good season last year and this year I've hit a bump in the road," said Hill. "Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward. Believe me, it's the last thing I wanted, but you have to accept it and work on things and hope your body feels good and start doing the things I feel I'm capable of doing. I know I can pitch at the major league level. I've done it and I know I'm going to be up there again. I don't know when, but I know I'll be there."
Not soon, though. His start Friday night for Single A Daytona didn't go well. He failed to get out of the fifth inning, allowing six runs (five earned) on six hits and walking three, including his final two batters. How long it will take to get back to Chicago is anyone's guess, but Hill would have trouble breaking the Cubs' rotation now anyway, especially since the team acquired Rich Harden from the Oakland A's. There had been some talk a couple of weeks ago about Hill coming to Boston in a deal for Coco Crisp, but that was denied by both sides.
Hill is not at all disturbed by the Cubs' acquisition of Harden.
"I think it's great," he said. "This is the year they feel they can go for it. He's a great pitcher, so if you have a chance to make a deal like that you have to do it. I'm disappointed I'm not there, but I'm happy for the guys in that clubhouse. They're a great group of 25 guys in there, very deserving of everything that comes their way. I have a lot of friends and they've kept me going and really taken an interest in how I'm doing and how I'm coming along. I don't feel as though anyone's forgotten me. They want me to straighten things out so maybe if there's a need at some point, maybe I'll be the guy they turn to. They've been very supportive."
Hill is trying to work things out one step at a time, hoping in the end that what has been a trying and humbling experience will make him better.
"You learn a lot about meeting the next challenge," said Hill. "You see a problem and you try and correct it the next time. You keep doing that until it's right. Will it make be stronger, tougher? We'll see in the end. Right now, I'm just going out to compete and make progress. I'm trying to have fun playing baseball again."
Wilson starry-eyed in New York
A few questions for Giants closer Brian Wilson, born in Winchester and the pride of Londonderry (N.H.) High School:
How cool was it to pitch in the All-Star Game?
BW: "One of my goals as a major league player was to pitch at Yankee Stadium and to pitch in an All-Star Game. It was great. It was everything I thought it would be and more. Just to be out there against guys that I'd seen on TV growing up as a Red Sox fan was just awesome. Watching the Home Run Derby with Josh Hamilton was . . . what a display. That was one of the most insane displays I've ever seen."
Who were your guys growing up?
BW: "Roger Clemens, for sure. I really liked Derek Lowe. Carlton Fisk is a New Hampshire boy, too. It was fun growing up with those guys and those teams. As Red Sox fans, we're really into the team. It was a great feeling to be part of that Red Sox Nation thing. Any time the Red Sox got into the playoffs it was such an exciting thing. Everybody got into it."
Still a Sox fan?
BW: "Sure, I still root for them and hope they do well. I'm not as into it now that I'm a major league player playing for another organization, but you never forget your team that you grew up with."
Been back to New England much?
BW: "I was hoping to get back last offseason, but I don't think I've been back there since 2002. I moved to Phoenix, where it's nice and warm. I don't miss the cold and the snow and the winters at all."
You faced Carlos Quentin and Carlos Guillen in the eighth inning of the All-Star Game and successfully protected a one-run lead before handing it over to Billy Wagner. What was that like?
BW: "I walked off the mound with my head held high. It was awkward in that I don't really get taken out in the middle of the inning, but it was a great feeling to just have been out there and done my job and battled and come out of it without putting anyone on base."
Beane counting on building new core group with trades
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane has had a whirlwind couple of weeks, selling off Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Cubs and Joe Blanton to the Phillies, signing Dominican pitching phenom Michael Inoa, 16, who is 6 feet 7 inches, to a whopping $4.25 million contract. Who's next to go, closer Huston Street?
"Well, we don't necessarily go out and call 29 teams and say, 'What will you give us for Huston Street?' We listen if teams call and what they might propose to see if it's a viable situation for us," explained Beane. "With Huston, he's got a lot of major league experience and he's only 24 years old, so a guy like Huston would definitely fit into what we're trying to re-create here down the road. I think with all of our players we listen to what other teams have to say and then as an organization we decide whether it makes sense for us."
Did the recent sell-off have anything to do with the delay in building a new stadium, preventing the A's from generating the revenue to retain more accomplished players like Harden and Blanton?
"I don't think so at all," said Beane. "I think we would have done this anyway. I think with the guys we've gotten back, we've really changed the direction of the franchise. Right now, I think, in a very short time, we have arguably as many great young players as any team. We're trying to re-create a team down the road similar to 1999 when I got here with a core of young players that really solidified us for a very long time. We had a core of players like [Barry ] Zito, [Mark ] Mulder, [Tim ] Hudson, [Miguel] Tejada, [Jason ] Giambi 10 years ago that put us on the map and we're trying to re-create that situation as quickly and aggressively as we can. I'm not sure we're rebuilt yet, but I'd say we're well on our way."
How quickly did these deals come together?
"The Phillies' interest in Blanton had gone back a couple of years, so when we heard the right package and the right time we did it. As for Rich Harden, Jim [Hendry, the Cubs' GM] and I are good friends and we've talked about this for a while. The talks actually started a month before."
The A's acquired from the Cubs 22-year-old Boston-born righthander Sean Gallagher, former Auburn University power-hitting catcher Josh Donaldson, infielder Eric Patterson (who hit .320 at Triple A Iowa), and former Sox farmhand Matt Murton (part of the Nomar Garciaparra deal).
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Alex Rodriguez went 0 for 2 with a strikeout and left the All-Star Game early, and didn't participate in the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium; 2. Wake up Miami. Only averaging 15,000-plus for Marlins games?; 3. I second Goose Gossage's emotion: George Steinbrenner should be in the Hall of Fame; 4. One of the prospects Oakland got from the Phillies in the Joe Blanton deal is Josh Outman. Great name for a pitcher; 5. Neither Manny Acta nor John Russell have been ejected this season; Bonus: Don't think I've ever seen a catcher make a better one-hop scoop and tag of a runner at the plate than the one Russell Martin made in the All-Star Game.
He likes their chances
Albert Pujols isn't conceding anything to the Cubs or Brewers in the NL Central. In fact, he loves his Cardinals' chances at the postseason. "We just go out and win," said Pujols. "We have a manager who stresses winning and does everything to put us in position to win every day. We have players here who don't get a lot of recognition, but they do the job every day. I know that you guys [media] didn't give us much of a chance, but inside here we always thought we were good. Our young guys have really stepped up. We're going to be in it."
Deal still paying off
Wondered what happened to the other guys in the Hanley Ramirez-Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell deal? Righthander Jesus Delgado, 24, whom the Sox included in that deal, played in the Futures Game last Sunday, where he hit 98 miles per hour on the radar gun, and was called up to the Marlins from Double A Carolina Friday night. The Marlins are looking for an experienced reliever to help them in the NL East race and Delgado, 5-1 with a 3.73 ERA in 27 games at Carolina, could definitely be one of the chips they deal to make that happen. Keep your eye on another player in that deal, righthander Anibal Sanchez, who pitched a no-hitter for Florida in 2006. He's come back nicely from rotator cuff surgery and could be back in Florida by the end of July after he makes another couple of rehab starts. The other prospect the Marlins received, righthander Harvey Garcia, is out for the season after having rotator cuff surgery in April.
Sexson gets an endorsement
Former Seattle skipper John McLaren, who will be paid by the team through the 2009 season, said he will go on a scouting mission to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela soon for the Mariners. McLaren is back at his home in Arizona weighing his options for next season and hopes to hook on as a coach for a contending team. Asked about how his former first baseman, Richie Sexson, will fit in with the Yankees, McLaren said, "He'll be fine. He was hitting lefthanded pitching (.344, 5 homers, 12 RBIs) pretty well and he's got the power to hit it out of left field over there. He really worked hard in spring training to try to turn his career around and I think he just started pressing. The crowd was on him a lot. The change of scenery could really help." Sexson had a career .151 average at Yankee Stadium in 73 at-bats with five homers and 31 strikeouts.
Coming up short again
Is Edgar Renteria just on the downside of his career (he turns 33 in August) and unable to play shortstop anymore, or is he encountering the same problems he did in 2005 with Boston, that he just doesn't like playing in the American League? Whatever it is, Renteria has been a major disappointment in Detroit. Unless he hits similar to the .358 he hit after the All-Star break in Atlanta last season, it's doubtful the Tigers will pick up the $12 million option on his contract for '09.
For starters, he won't take bait
Twins GM Bill Smith has shown great restraint in not reacting to agent Greg Genske, who's asking the Players Association to "investigate" why Francisco Liriano hasn't been brought up after winning seven straight games for Triple A Rochester. The team's strength has been its five starters, four young pitchers and one veteran, Livan Hernandez, who is the staff's glue. "I don't want to say too much about it," said Smith. "I think the agent is probably just doing his job. We love the success Liriano is having in Rochester, but our kids up here are pitching great and we've been on a roll and our team has played very well." Asked whether the Twins will try to upgrade with a deal, Smith said, "We have to be very careful because we love the chemistry on this team and the job our manager and coaches have done with a lot of new players. The last thing we want to do is disrupt that. We're always looking to upgrade, but it has to make sense."
From Bill Chuck: "In 1954, Bob Grim won 20 games for the Yankees and only pitched 199 innings. In 2002, pitching for the Red Sox, Pedro Martínez won 20 throwing only 199 1/3 innings. With 10 wins thus far in 88 1/3 innings, Daisuke Matsuzaka has a chance to smash that record." . . . As it will be wonderful to witness the late Larry Whiteside of this newspaper enter the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame next weekend in Cooperstown, we congratulate this year's finalists, Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, Dave Van Dyck of the Chicago Tribune and Nick Peters of the Sacramento Bee . . . Happy 37th birthday, Charles Johnson (traded to, but never played for the Red Sox).
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.