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Zulgad: Intrasquad outing doesn't stop Hill from letting all hear his competitive fire

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Minnesota Twins’ Rich Hill pitches live batting practice at a baseball camp Monday, July 6, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Rich Hill might have been pitching in an intrasquad game Saturday night at Target Field, but that did nothing to lessen the competitive fire of the 40-year-old southpaw. Hill’s 5.1 innings of work was punctuated by loud grunts after almost every delivery and on a few occasions a one-syllable word of frustration that echoed throughout the empty stadium.

This was nothing new for the highly competitive 15-year veteran. Mild-mannered away from the mound, Hill is wound tighter than the baseball he throws when he’s on it. It was supposed to be several months until the Twins saw that fire this season. Hill was signed to a one-year, $3 million contract last December that included $9.5 million in potential performance bonuses.

He was expected to spend the first three months of the season rehabbing from October surgery for a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm. Hill already had undergone Tommy John surgery in 2011, so this time doctors reportedly performed a “primary repair” procedure. The goal was to cut the recovery time in about half from normal Tommy John surgery.

The timetable for Hill’s recovery did not change but because the coronavirus pandemic put MLB on a break of four-plus months that means he will be ready to go for Opening Day when the Twins begin the season on July 24 against the White Sox in Chicago. Instead of having to find a place for Hill in the rotation upon his return, the Twins likely will slot him into the fourth-starter role behind Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda.

Hill’s appearance on Saturday marked another step for a pitcher who has battled injuries throughout a big-league career that began in 2005 with the Chicago Cubs and has since included stops with Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, the Angels, the Yankees, Boston (again), Oakland and the Dodgers. Hill is 65-42 with a 3.82 ERA in 284 games and 156 starts and has played in 10 postseason series, going 1-2 with a 3.06 ERA in 13 games and 12 starts. This includes a 1.80 ERA in three World Series starts for the Dodgers in 2017 and 2018.

Hill can be a very effective member of a rotation when he’s healthy but that’s the issue. He has made 14 trips to the injured list during his career. In the sprint that will be a 60-game regular season in 2020, the Twins are hoping Hill’s arm and overall health can hold up.

One thing Hill will bring, along with free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson, is intensity. The Twins won 101 games, set the single-season record for home runs in the big leagues and captured the AL Central title last season, so there is no question that the formula under first-year manager Rocco Baldelli worked. Nelson Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez provided a level of clubhouse professionalism that everyone respected. But if Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, was looking to add some veteran intensity to his ballclub he appears to have done it.

This might work in the Twins’ favor in a baseball season that, for the first time, is going to feel like an NFL season. When you are playing the normal 162 game MLB marathon, there has to be time to breathe, relax and forget losing streaks. In a 60-game season, however, it’s fair to dissect every game as being important and a bad two-week stretch could cost a good team a playoff berth.

Hill’s performance on the mound looked good and came from a guy who sounded as if he isn’t going to allow anyone to let down around him. He threw 5.1 innings — working past the usual four for these games because his pitch count remained low — and gave up no runs, two hits, no walks and struck out five. Hill threw 60 pitches, including 41 for strikes, according to MLB.com. Mitch Garver singled to lead off the intrasquad game against Hill and Jake Cave singled in Hill’s third inning of work. That was it for hits.

Hill faced veteran righthander Homer Bailey, who signed with the Twins at the same time Hill did. Bailey threw 3.2 innings, giving up no runs, two hits, walking two and striking out three. He threw 70 pitches, including 39 for strikes.

“Both Homer and Rich, I think they both threw the ball superbly,” Baldelli said. “With Rich, he got his work in to the level of we actually had to extend his outing a little bit out there because he’s so efficient. You saw the competitiveness out there; he’s not out there just trying to get a little work. He’s goes out there to try to make great pitches and get people out. Whether it’s his teammates or not.”

As far as Hill’s grunting? “He’s clearly No. 1 on our team,” among pitchers who grunt, Baldelli said. “Some guys will grunt on an occasional pitch. Some guys will grunt as the at-bats go on and they get to two strikes or something is going on. But Rich is a pretty consistent noise maker out on the mound. That’s part of who he is. I think he’s probably been doing this for a little while and he works hard out there. He’s not just out there kind of feeling it out … he can grunt all he wants.”