For Hill, a long climb to secure role with A's

'Timing and opportunity' of 2015 season led to veteran's return to starting

March 5th, 2016
Rich Hill was "humbled" by the interest shown in him this offseason, ultimately opting to sign with the A's. (Getty)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

MESA, Ariz. -- Left-hander Rich Hill made four stellar starts for the Red Sox this past September, striking out 10 batters in each of the first three starts and 36 overall.

The quartet of performances came out of nowhere and resurrected Hill's career as a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. Previously, he hadn't started a game since 2009 as a member the Orioles. Since then, Hill had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, cleanup surgery on that shoulder and has had too many stops along the road to mention.

Hill hopes now he's found a home with the A's. His September to remember earned him a one-year, $6 million contract as a free agent and the second spot in Oakland's rotation behind ace Sonny Gray.

"Many teams were interested during the offseason, and I was really humbled by that," Hill said on Saturday. "It just seemed that coming to Oakland was a great fit. They were interested right from the beginning. We logged a lot of miles last year. It was great, though -- just getting back into starting, once again feeling healthy and enjoying the game every single day we play."

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Hill made his first spring start for the A's against the Brewers on Saturday at HoHoKam Stadium, and he pitched to eight batters, allowing a run on two hits with three walks before he left with one out in the second. He called it a "pretty poor" performance as he searched for his release point and tried to keep the ball down in the zone.

Excuse Hill for feeling a bit tenuous. He said this is the first time in nine years he's come into a camp knowing he already has a spot on the 25-man roster and a predetermined role.

A little nervous about repeating the success of this past September that landed Hill with Oakland in the first place, he's not in the same place as a normal 35-year-old veteran using the spring to get ready for another season.

"I think that's a fair statement," he said. "I wasn't that far off, but I expect more."

Last year at this time, Hill was in camp with the Nationals on a Minor League contract, trying to a secure spot in the bullpen. He didn't make the club. Hill's travels from Viera, Fla., looked like this: Syracuse, N.Y. to Bethpage, N.Y. to Pawtucket, R.I. to Boston. Two Major League organizations, two starts with the independent Long Island Ducks and stops in two Minor League garden spots.

Hill had made 135 relief appearances for four big league teams before the Red Sox sent him to the mound against the Rays at Tropicana Field on Sept. 13. Boston was short starters and no one knew what to expect since it was his first one since July 27, 2009.

Hill threw seven innings of one-hit ball, walked one and whiffed 10 and the Red Sox won, 2-0. It was only the beginning. On Sept. 25 at Fenway Park, Hill threw his first complete game since Sept. 22, 2006, pitching against the Reds for the Cubs.

What changed since this past June 24, when the Nationals released Hill? Up until then, he had been strictly used out of the bullpen.

"One of the big things was moving to the right-hand side of the rubber," Hill said. "Being able to do that brought back a lot of familiarity. When I was starting before, I was pitching from the right side of the rubber. That and going back over the top and feeling healthy enough to do it.

"After that, things just started to fall into place. Just having the feel and release point out front. I was able to release my fastball and my breaking pitches out front. Having the ball coming out of my hand consistently the way I wanted it to created something that clicked."

That transition began when Boston signed Hill to a Minor League contract on Aug. 14 and put him in the rotation. He made five starts for Triple-A Pawtucket, winning three times and recording a 2.78 ERA.

The Red Sox had a plethora of injuries to starters in 2015, using 11 pitchers in that role. So it seemed natural to pick up Hill's contract and give him a whirl.

It was then-Red Sox pro scouting director Jared Porter who advised Hill to change positions on the rubber.

"He made the suggestion for me to go from the left side of the rubber to the right," Hill said about Porter, who has since gone to the Cubs. "That was big for me, because it put me more in the strike zone. One of the big things is that if I missed, I would miss arm side. As a left-hander moving to the other side of the rubber gives you the ability to be in the strike zone more. You gain a lot of distance doing that.

"His suggestion was, 'As soon as you get strike one on a hitter, you're dominant.' They thought by moving over, it would increase the percentage of that happening. And it did."

Hill walked only five batters in 29 innings and had a microscopic .0655 WHIP. Amazingly, such a seemingly simple adjustment was the key to his newfound success.

"Last year, timing and opportunity really met," Hill said. "After I was released by Washington, I had the opportunity to go home for a month and really access what I was doing. Suddenly, I had the opportunity to get back into starting and went to Long Island to do it."

Now Hill is with Oakland, and he knows exactly what he's doing. And he's intent on parlaying four great September starts into a productive season.