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Hill feels the utmost relief

Lefty’s elbow fine after first BP test

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 17, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - For Rich Hill, spring training is measured in ways that will never show up on a box score. On Friday, the triumph came early in the morning when he rolled out of bed and didn’t feel any twinge of pain in his left elbow.

Hill, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, threw batting practice for the first time Thursday. He wondered how his arm would feel the next day after 17 pitches thrown at full effort.

The answer was gratifying.

“It felt like I hadn’t pitched,’’ Hill said. “It was amazing.’’

Hill tore the ulnar collateral ligament on June 1 pitching against the White Sox. Dr. James Andrews transplanted a ligament from his left wrist into Hill’s elbow eight days later. The scars are only now starting to fade.

Hill was told it would be 12-14 months before he returned to the Red Sox. But the 32-year-old reliever is convinced it will come before that. Now that he is throwing without discomfort in competitive situations, the process of refining his command can pick up speed.

“I’m not looking at it now like I need to be back by a certain date. I’m just seeing how I feel each day and going from there,’’ Hill said. “If I feel great, I want to push ahead. I’m not looking at the calendar.’’

Hill is a potentially valuable part of the reconstituted Sox bullpen. The Milton, Mass., native has appeared in 15 games since being signed in 2010, throwing 12 scoreless innings. Lefthanded hitters are 2 for 22 against him.

It’s a small sample size, but Hill’s sidearm delivery creates angles that make him an ideal lefthanded specialist. After being used as primarily a starter in the first five seasons of his career, Hill changed his delivery after signing with the Sox and was reborn as a reliever.

“I’ve really come to appreciate everything more than I did before. There is nothing I take for granted,’’ Hill said. “Thankfully, I’m young enough to enjoy an extended career. Hopefully, that’s what happens.’’

Hill had shoulder surgery in 2009 and, by comparison, the rehabilitation on his elbow has been a breeze.

“With my shoulder, it took longer to feel back to normal,’’ Hill said. “One day it would be great and the next day it would feel like it was injured again. I can clearly remember the first day I tried to throw after my shoulder surgery, it was like nothing was fixed. It was really painful to get the joint moving again. It took time for that to dissipate and for the surrounding muscles to strengthen.’’

Hill has become well educated on arm injuries as a result of his two surgeries.

“I don’t think the shoulder has been figured out by doctors,’’ he said.

“The elbow surgery is not 100 percent but it’s in the high 90s. With shoulders, it’s mix and match with what you might get. Some guys don’t come back and other comes back in a different capacity. I’ve learned to put my trust in the rehab process knowing I’ll come back.’’

Hill spent three days a week at Fenway Park during the winter, going through a throwing program designed to bring his elbow back to full strength. He also attended workouts four days a week with Mike Boyle, the team’s new strength and conditioning consultant.

That hard work has Hill, if not ahead of schedule, then doing as well as could be expected at this juncture of his rehab. Throwing batting practice, which he will do again Sunday, only added to his confidence.

“It’s great to face hitters and have that competition again,’’ he said. “I’m not sure I was actually pitching, but it felt like I was pitching. I was going after guys. When you’re facing hitters, you want to talk their heads off and I felt like that. It was great.

“Any time you get an opportunity to perform, you’re going to go 100 percent. I didn’t hold back at all. For me, I have only one speed. That’s why the bullpen fits me well.’’

Hill is hopeful of getting into a game before camp breaks. Regardless, he will need a series of minor league games before coming off the disabled list. Given that he usually pitches in short stints, sometimes for only a batter or two, that process of building up his arm won’t take long.

Manager Bobby Valentine acknowledged it was hard for him to be patient after seeing Hill throw the ball so well. But until the doctors clear Hill, Valentine will forget about him.

“When a guy’s not healthy, I try not to place him in my mind at all. Because I don’t know if he’s going to have a setback and I know I need to form the group that I have,’’ Valentine said. “It’s been said in the past that when guys are injured I neglect them. It’s because I do. I can’t build around them until they’re ready to go.’’

Hill is confident that time is coming quicker than anybody expects.

“Like I said, I haven’t put a date on it. But I know I’m getting closer just because how I feel,’’ he said.

“It’s been a long time for me, but I know I can come back and help this team and hopefully it will be for a long time.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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