Hill relishes chance with Cardinals

Hill relishes chance with Cardinals

JUPITER, Fla. -- Rich Hill's first Grapefruit League outing since shoulder surgery last summer produced positive results five days ago, so the Cardinals' left-hander was looking forward to his next stint on the mound Friday. Mother Nature, however, spoiled it.

Rain that began Thursday night and lasted well into Friday forced the Redbirds' scheduled game against the Red Sox to be postponed and washed out Hill's first start this spring.

Hill was more disappointed in missing his turn in the spring rotation than the fact he was scheduled to pitch against the team from his native Boston.

"Last year with the Orioles, I had that opportunity to start against the Red Sox, but I think it kind of loses its effect," said Hill, who pitched for Baltimore last season and signed a Minor League contract with the Cardinals in January. "I'm here to work and earn a job. It doesn't matter who it's against."

When Hill was told last summer that he would need surgery on his pitching shoulder to repair his labrum, he wasn't sure what the future might hold, since rehab from that particular surgery can be lengthy. Following the operation, Hill was told that only a thread of the labrum needed to be repaired, thus shortening the rehab and paving the way for the lefty to be invited to Cardinals camp with an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation.

One of the two hits Hill allowed Sunday against the Marlins was a home run, but otherwise, his two-inning stint in his first outing since the surgery last August was a positive one. He struck out two and issued no walks, which is especially promising since he struggled with his control with the Orioles last season, when he was 3-3 with a 7.80 ERA in 13 starts before heading to the operating room.

"The first time back after having shoulder surgery, just coming out and getting after it was exciting," Hill said Friday. "You want to get back out there again."

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Hill's road map to Cardinals camp has been somewhat bumpy since he was drafted in 2002 by the Cubs out of the University of Michigan. He recorded 183 strikeouts for the Cubs in 2007, fifth most in the National League that season when he won 11 games and had a 3.92 ERA.

Since then, however, he's seen more curves than opposing batters saw from him in 2007. Issues with his control swelled his ERA and deflated his confidence. He walked four of the first six batters he faced on May 2, 2008, when he lasted only two-thirds of an inning against, ironically, the Cardinals. The Cubs demoted him to Triple-A and he never escaped the Minors the remainder of that season.

Hill's control issues continued in Baltimore last season, when he issued 40 walks in 57 2/3 innings before problems with his shoulder surfaced.

Fortunately for Hill, surgery was successful and the injury not as serious as feared. Now, the southpaw is hoping to return to his 2007 form with the help of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, with whom Hill said he already has established a good working relationship.

"When he says something, it's usually very specific and to the point, and it makes sense," Hill said of Duncan. "It doesn't get really elaborate, doesn't get long and drawn out."

Hill's 30th birthday was Thursday, and although the weather derailed his second outing this spring, he's thankful for the second chance to prove himself in the Major Leagues.

"I've been given an opportunity to come here and play," said Hill, who likely will start in a "B" game or intrasquad game Saturday in Jupiter. "You take advantage of the opportunity, go out and perform and play. Every time you get on the mound, just do what you're capable of doing. It's all you can ask of yourself."

Steve Dorsey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.