MINNEAPOLIS — There was some concern last Friday when the Twins announced that Rich Hill’s start would be pushed back from Saturday to the middle of this week. Hill’s 15-year career has included 14 trips to the injured list and his first start in Minnesota would be coming off “primary repair” surgery to repair a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching (left) arm.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli did his best to downplay the matter of why Hill’s first start would wait, but late Wednesday night the lefthander acknowledged there was an issue. He had “a little inflammation” in his pitching shoulder that need to be addressed, but added that had “nothing to do with the elbow.”
This admission came after the 40-year-old Hill did a fantastic job of alleviating any concerns by pitching five innings and giving up no runs and only two hits in the Twins’ 3-0 victory over St. Louis at Target Field. That gave Minnesota a two-game sweep of the Cardinals and made Hill the Twins’ third consecutive offseason pitching addition to earn a win in as many games. Kenta Maeda earned the victory on Sunday against the White Sox in Chicago. Homer Bailey then gave up two runs, four hits, walked two and struck out four in five innings of a 6-3 victory on Tuesday night in the Target Field opener.
Hill, who like Bailey signed a one-year contract last December, walked one and struck out two as he earned his first win since June 14 of last season. He threw 41 of his 68 pitches for strikes and, on this night, proved to be worth of every penny of the $3 million he was set to receive before the reduction to a 60-game regular season meant his salary would be less.
What Hill didn’t lose because of baseball’s pandemic-delayed opening was many, if any, starts. He arrived for spring training expecting to spend the first three months rehabbing from a procedure that was done in October and aims to cut the recovery time in about half from normal Tommy John surgery. Hill already had undergone Tommy John in 2011 and at the age of 40 wanted to get back on the mound as soon as possible.
Hill said his surgically repaired UCL feels like “it’s 18 again.”
That’s potentially great news considering his approach to his craft makes him sound like a professor of pitching. “I think one of the things is realizing how to become a complete pitcher, and understanding that the art form of pitching is much more than velocity or really good breaking stuff, I guess, at a high velocity,” he said. “It’s really, when you break it down, it’s how to pitch and how can you pitch in situations where maybe you don’t have your best stuff and you need to be able to navigate through lineups and understanding (that). … For me, that’s the part of the game that I love. I love the craft and the art of it.”
Hill’s marriage with the Twins could both be a perfect match. He joins a rotation that includes Jose Berrios, Maeda, Homer Bailey and is expected to soon get back Jake Odorizzi, who opened the season on the injured list because of a back issue. Hill has proven that when’s he healthy, he’s often effective.
His big-league career 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 did not allow a runner past first base on Wednesday. Kolten Wong led off with a sharp line drove that ended up in the glove of shortstop Jorge Polanco. Tommy Edman, who hit a home run off Trevor May on Tuesday, struck out swinging and Paul Goldschmidt followed with a single to left before Paul DeJong flew to right. Yadier Molina singled to left in the second inning but Hill retired the next five hitters and 11 of the final 12 hitters he faced.
“It was an exceptional debut,” Baldelli said. “Exactly what you like to see. Rich has just a really interesting way to go about pitching. His stuff is pretty incredible. He’s got the fastball that he can ride and do different things with. Then he’s got that great feel for his curveball that he uses, basically whenever he wants it and however he wants it. Really fun to watch him do it. … It was pretty cool to see but exactly what we were all hoping for and a huge pick me up when a guy can go out there and throw the ball like that.”
The Twins (4-1) will play host to AL Central rival Cleveland in a four-game series starting on Thursday night and it seems safe to say this: If the Twins’ arms can come close to providing the type of production that their bats do on most nights, a shortened season with no fans in the stands has a chance to end up being memorable for reasons beyond COVID-19.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams, I’ve been on a lot of good teams,” Hill said. “When I look around and I see this team (and) when I say it and I don’t take it lightly, this is a very good team.”
It’s one that will be better if Hill can stay healthy for the next three months.