Moving on up

Late Wednesday evening came word that Rich Hill would be called up from Triple-A to make his fifth start of the year for Chicago against rival St. Louis at Wrigley Field Thursday. For the second straight season, Hill had blistered his competition at the minor league level and was quickly sent back there after a bitter-tasting cup of coffee at the major league club.

Hill garnered his first major league call-up last year after getting off to strong starts at Double-A West Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. He finished 6-1 with a 3.60 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 65 Triple-A innings in 2005.

When Hill began the year at Triple-A last April after Sean Marshall won the fourth starter's spot out of Spring Training, he was again dominant, and rightfully earned another call-up to the major league club. It lasted four starts, in which the left-hander was winless with more earned runs allowed than innings pitched. His team was outscored, 28-1, in that period.

Since then, Hill has been called everything from "Triple-A [bleep]" (White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen), to "mental midget" and "career 'AAAA' player" (the Cubs' own fanbase).

I'm not sure what the latter two even mean, but the last time I saw Rich during the Iowa Cubs' annual stop in New Orleans on the Pacific Coast League circuit just last month, I asked him about his first ever benches-clearing melee, and his first ever major league insult.

"Yeah, whatever, you know?" Hill said casually, referring to Guillen's ridiculous insinuation that the Cub pitcher's struggles alone could get manager Dusty Baker fired. "Words were said that weren't professional, but that's fine. If that's the way it's going to be, then so be it. He's made a name for himself all on his own, no thanks to me."

Like many in the baseball word, Hill couldn't care less what the boyish, foul-mouthed Guillen has to say about him. What he does care about is how the Cubs feel.

And if you are to believe the Cubs, there's plenty of good news to go around concerning Rich Hill.

"We still think the world of Rich Hill. He's going to pitch in the big leagues for a long, long time," Cubs Assistant to the General Manager Randy Bush told Inside The Ivy recently. "Some pitchers, for whatever reason, take a little longer to figure it out ... we think he has a great, great future."

"What's not to like?" Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita responded when asked about Hill. "There's nothing not to love about him. He's having one heck of a year. I've never seen anybody put up numbers like that in Triple-A in a long time, especially with some of the parks in the PCL."

Iowa teammate and fellow southpaw Ryan O'Malley simply calls Hill "Koufax," and says that on Hill's stronger nights, he's never seen anyone as dominant against opposing hitters.

And Tim Wilken, the Cubs' first-year Director of Amateur and Professional Scouting, was equally as impressed by Hill the first time the veteran scouting guru observed the southpaw in action this season.

"His curveball is his best pitch and his strikeout pitch. He can pitch in the big leagues," Wilken told us in June.

In spite of all the praise, many feel Hill's biggest chance at success at the next level can be summed up in one word: opportunity.

Hill already has three previous but brief stints with the Chicago team. Each lasted shorter than modern-day sitcoms on NBC.

Hill and his coaches all agreed last month that if the pitcher is to one day make good on predictions from those like Bush, he will have to be given an extended, ample shot to perform on a big league mound.

The Cubs (39-61) should have no reservations regarding that.

This past weekend, the team was swept by the Washington Nationals in three games at RFK Stadium. They then took two of three from the first-place New York Mets at Shea Stadium and will host another first-place team, the Cardinals, Thursday night at 7:05 p.m. CDT. The game can be seen on WGN.

The last time I saw Rich Hill, he was commanding all of his pitches for strikes and had racked up nine strikeouts in seven innings with only one hit allowed. That was on June 26. He had made quick work out of opposing hitters, many of which had already seen big league playing time in some capacity; others were well thought of prospects by the Nationals and their Roving Hitting Instructor, former big leaguer Dante Bichette.

At the time, I thought it was near impossible for Hill to look any better, or to be more deserving of another chance with the major league team.

Fast-forward a month, and he has since struck out 28 batters in 15 1/3 innings over his last two starts for Iowa. One way or another, Triple-A does not seem fit to hold Hill for too long.

As myself and one of the local Zephyrs beat writers from New Orleans left the clubhouse on that muggy night when the I-Cubs were getting ready to leave the city once and for all this year, I made it a point to say a special farewell to Rich Hill in particular.

You see, Rich is one of those guys who doesn't mind chatting. He doesn't mind being photographed, signing autographs, or just striking up a conversation about anything from antique cars to proper hurricane preparation. (I know little to nothing about either one.)

"Hopefully, I won't see you here next year," Hill told me.

Somehow, I don't think he will.

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