PAWTUCKET — Rich Hill could have been sulking and pouting on Monday afternoon after learning the news that fellow southpaw Hideki Okajima -- not he -- was called up to the Boston Red Sox and added to the club’s bullpen.
After all, Hill had been lights out in his four appearances with the Pawtucket Red Sox, striking out 11 batters, recording a save, and yielding just five hits, two walks, and no earned runs in his 8 2/3 innings of work.
But Okajima had also been superb, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings in his five games with the Pawtucket, and when the Red Sox optioned Felix Doubront to their Triple-A team, they decided to recall their former All-Star reliever.
“Of course, everyone wants to be there now, but you have to be patient in this game and understand why things are the way they are,” Hill added. “I’m just excited to be healthy and obviously pitching well. That’s really the only thing that you can control.”
Hill has certainly made a strong case for a major-league callup. He has limited opposing batters to a .152 (5-for-33) average that is the third-best mark in the International League, and against righthanders, he has been particularly stingy with a .143 (3-for-21) mark.
And as for his 0.00 ERA, Hill also had the same mark in seven spring training outings with Boston, as he struck out 10 batters and allowed six hits and four walks in another 8 2/3 innings of work.
Want to go back a little further? Hill was also scoreless last September during his promotion to the Red Sox. In six appearances (four innings), he picked up a win, fanned three, and surrendered five hits and a walk.
A big key to his success has been a change in his delivery, which he described as “probably a little bit higher than sidearm, almost like a low three-quarters” and began employing during his stint in Boston.
“(Former Red Sox pitching coach) John (Farrell) and I had talked about it in the bullpen one time in Fenway,” he noted. “I did it a couple of times coming out of the bullpen there and he said, ‘We’d really like to see you do that all the time.’ That was something that I was on board with.
“It was something that I felt was like second nature and it came to me pretty easily. When I was starting, I’d do it every now and then to lefthanded hitters, and drop down and throw that slider and fastball from down there, so it really wasn’t a huge adjustment.”
Hill also gave credit to his fastball, which despite his arm angle, has seen an increase in velocity and felt as comfortable as the pitch he had four years ago as a starting pitcher with the Chicago Cubs.
“I think my fastball has come back with the strength in my shoulder and the work that we did in the offseason with the shoulder program with the guys in Boston,” he noted.
That ’07 season with the Cubs was the first full campaign in the big leagues for Hill, who in 32 starts, was 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA and fifth in the National League in strikeouts (183) and opponent’s batting average (.235) to help the Cubs reach the N.L. playoffs.
Unfortunately for Hill, he wasn’t able to match that success. A back muscle strain and a left calf strain ruined the following year, and after he was sent to the Baltimore Orioles in 2009 for cash considerations, he endured a strained left elbow and a left shoulder inflammation.
Hill only totaled 34 starts in those two seasons -- 18 in the major leagues with the Cubs and Orioles (and going 3-4 with a 6.86 ERA) -- but he managed to stay healthy last season while dividing it between the St. Louis Cardinals and Red Sox organizations.
Hill went 4-3 with a 4.30 ERA in 23 appearances (19 in relief) for the Cards’ Triple-A team in Memphis, and when he was released by the organization and signed by the Red Sox on June 30, he went 3-1 with a 3.74 ERA in 19 games (13 out of the bullpen) for Pawtucket.
“(The) ’08 and ’09 (seasons) were tough years,” said Hill, “but last year was my first where I felt like everything was coming back and put together.”
The promotion to Boston at the end of the Triple-A season was a special one for Hill, a resident of South Boston, Mass. and lifelong New Englander who was raised in Milton, Mass., graduated from Milton High in 1999, and grew up a Red Sox fan.
“You can’t really put a price tag on that,” said Hill. “It’s great for myself and my wife to just to be here. It is a great convenience, but just coming here and playing and being from the area is great.”
Getting back to Boston would also be great, but Hill knows that he has to be patient and continue to be successful in order to have a chance at returning.
“That’s part of maturity and understanding,” said Hill. “All you can do is just come to the field everyday, be excited to play, and keep that enthusiasm and conviction when you go out there and pitch. That’s the only thing that you can control.”