That Rich Hill etched a place in Red Sox history without any fanfare seems appropriate. The mild-mannered 31-year-old is hardly eager to draw attention to his accomplishments.
On Tuesday, Hill recorded four key outs in the seventh and eighth inning, stranding a pair of runners by striking out Jack Hannahan after inheriting a two-on, two-out situation from Josh Beckett, then working around a leadoff walk in the eighth in the Sox’ 4-2 win over the Indians. (Recap.)
The outing was the 13th of Hill’s Red Sox career. He has yet to allow a run. As such, the left-hander is now tied (with Ramon Ramirez, who accomplished the feat in 2009) for the longest streak of scoreless outings by a pitcher at the start of his Sox career.
Hill is aware of his career 0.00 ERA with the Sox. Yet he tries to downplay its importance, citing the philosophy of coaching legend John Wooden in suggesting that the process is more important than the outstanding results in his Red Sox career.
“That’s something that you know. You’re like, ‘Yeah, I haven’t given up a run,’” Hill said last week. “But the whole thing is to pitch with conviction every time you’re out there. Bottom line. Streak or no streak, runs or no runs, you’re continuously going out there and pitching with conviction. And whatever the outcome may be, you can come out of that outing on top because you did pitch with conviction.
“It’s kind of that Wooden-type mentality, going out there, playing a game, putting the score – no matter what it is – behind you and playing to the best of your ability. That’s really the way I look at it.”
That Hill would now have conviction about his work on the mound is now a no-brainer. He has enjoyed a startling run of success, beginning with six scoreless appearances spanning four innings with the Red Sox in September, continuing with seven scoreless appearances in spring training, a 1.13 ERA in 16 innings with Triple-A Pawtucket and then seven scoreless games since the Sox called him up in early May.
But the path to Hill’s place of conviction suggests that the trait was not easy to come by. His big league career started with great promise, when he spent a season and a half in the Cubs rotation, going 17-15 with a 4.01 ERA and an eye-opening 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2006 and 2007.
But his command faltered in 2008, as he walked 18 hitters in 19 2/3 innings. His inability to throw a fastball for a strike led the Cubs to send him to the minors after just five starts, and he struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in 2008 and 2009 (with the Orioles).
Things started trending in the right direction for him last year, first at the start of the season in the Cardinals’ system, with continued progress when he opted out of his contract mid-year and signed with the Red Sox, the franchise for whom the Milton native grew up rooting.
Even so, the Sox initially hadn’t planned on calling up Hill last September. However, Pawtucket manager Torey Lovullo – who was on the Sox’ staff for the final month of the year – recommended that the left-hander get a big league opportunity.
It was during his spell at the end in the majors over the final three weeks of last season that he began to employ a sidearm delivery with increased frequency. Hill had always had that arm slot as an arrow in the quiver as a starter, but it was only in relief where he started to rely heavily on it.
“I like doing that stuff. It’s almost like in golf, creating a shot in practice. Then you get out there on the course, you have to perform that shot,” Hill said of the origins of his sidearm delivery, which he first experimented with while in the majors with the Cubs. “You can challenge yourself, have fun with it, instead of make it a challenge that isn’t fun.
That took Hill to an important juncture in the offseason. The return to big league success had been tantalizing. Yet if Hill were to commit to the sidearm delivery, using his long left arm to flip the ball from what would appear to be somewhere around first base, it would represent a commitment to a career path.
He would be committing to a reliever’s delivery, one that would likely result in his being characterized as a left-handed specialist. Hill was willing to pass that point of no return.
“You can’t kind of have any trepidation, or say, ‘I want to be a starter.’ You have to buy into it and be all in,” said Hill. “I like being in the bullpen and using that angle as a different view, something different than hitters normally see. It’s something I believe in and am 100 percent in on. I think you have to be. You can’t be halfway in on anything, say, ‘Let’s see if this works. Let’s try it.’ It’s not a ‘let’s try’ thing. It’s something I’ve been working on and believe can be really effective.”
There was a challenge to committing to a new delivery, however. Because Hill lives year-round in Boston, he was unable to refine the delivery on a mound during a brutal winter.
But he did what he could, did what he had to do. Hill found places to throw indoors, venues where he could practice his delivery and try to make the mechanics of it second nature.
The work has paid off. Hill has been able to flip his curveball for strikes almost at will since returning to the majors. That fact, coupled with a fastball that has bumped up into the low-90s (Hill had mostly worked at 88-89 mph in the past), has allowed the 6-foot-5 southpaw to make an impact.
Already, he has emerged as the most trusted left-hander in the Sox bullpen. Left-handed hitters are 1-for-12 with six strikeouts against him. But he’s also enjoyed success against right-handers, going 2-or-11 with four punchouts.
That, in turn, has allowed Hill to carry that 0.00 ERA, and to achieve a form of history on the team for whom he rooted as a kid in Milton. As much as Hill recognizes that records and results are secondary to process, he also cannot deny the appeal of etching his name into the record book of a storied franchise.
“It would be very awesome,” Hill said last week, before reaching the milestone. “You look at someone like Tim Wakefield, all the high honors he’s had here with the Red Sox. To have just one of those, especially from growing up a Red Sox fan, would be very cool.”