Spring Roundup: Rich Hill

MESA, Ariz. - Left-hander Rich Hill led the Cubs' farm system in strikeouts for a good portion of 2004. However, mid-season control problems led to a spike in ERA and a temporary move to the bullpen. This spring, Hill says he's back to starting.

"Spring Training has gone really well this year," Hill said. "This is probably the most fun I've had so far in the three Spring Training's I've been to."

As Hill says, the fun comes from being one of the older prospects in camp and possessing certain knowledge of the farm system. "It makes things more relaxing," said the 25-year-old.

Hill, a fourth round pick out of the University of Michigan in 2002, finished 7-6 with a 4.03 ERA in 28 appearances, including 19 starts, at Class-A Daytona last season. This spring, he says he's been more consistent toward the plate and is currently working on finding new ways to bring that success with him into the season ahead. With his curveball (regarded as one of the best in the farm system) and cut fastball down path, Hill says the pitch he has been refining the most this spring is his changeup.

"It's the one pitch I need to master," said Hill. "It's been working really well this spring thankfully. I've now got three pitches I can throw for strikes, and I've been able to put my cutter aside and focus more on my change."

The cutter is one of three pitches Hill says can be described as an out-pitch. The main one in Hill's repertoire, of course, is his curveball. However, he says the fastball is coming along quite nicely as well. "I'm getting guys to swing through it," Hill said.

After a bout of wildness last July caused Hill to move into the bullpen for almost a month, the Boston native says he has returned to starting this spring.

"I prefer to start," he said, "and I've been starting this spring. The bullpen wasn't a huge adjustment, but it was certainly different from the standpoint of starting every fifth day and knowing when you're going to pitch as opposed to not knowing what game or how many innings you'll throw from day to day. But I enjoyed the bullpen and it wasn't a problem."

As for the control problems, "I think it was all a matter of me still being fairly young, mixed with a little inconsistency," Hill said. "I'd been messing around with my arm angle and trying to find a comfortable feel for my mechanics. This season, I'm completely comfortable with everything I've got going."

One of the strongest things about Hill last season was his knack for bouncing back strong following a bad outing. For instance, after allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning against Vero Beach on Aug. 2, Hill proceeded to toss 10 straight scoreless frames over his next four outings.

"You just have to carry a short-term memory with you from start to start," said Hill. "Just forget about it and move on. The quicker you can do that, the more successful you're going to be. If I set around and beat myself up over it, it'll only carry over into my next outing."

Hill admits he did a lot of work in the offseason to sharpen the mental aspect of his game, in addition to preparing himself physically for the year ahead.

"I've been focusing more on having a positive attitude and bringing it with me to the field every day," said Hill. "It certainly makes it more fun and easier to play with less pressure. The pressure I've had has always come from me anyway."

Asked what made him decide to focus more on the mental side of his game, Hill said, "It's important, because I know I've got the potential to get to the big leagues from a (talent) standpoint. All I have to do is perfect the mental side and get it down path ... It should all take care of itself. I read a few books in the offseason that helped me a lot."

Thanks to Hill's hard work this spring, he was invited to join the parent club in Las Vegas Friday and Saturday for the Cubs' final two exhibition games of the spring.

"Seeing how the major league guys throw and watching how they go about their business is really no different than what we do," Hill said. "Sometimes people tend to put (the major leaguers) on a larger scale when it's really no different than anyone else. I put myself right up there with them."

When he's not at the ballpark, Hill spends time tending to his car, a vintage 1971 Ford Mustang convertible. He hopes to start 2005 at Double-A.

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