Hill takes step closer to Opening Day
Injured O's lefty continues rehab with 26-pitch bullpen session
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Left-hander Rich Hill took his first step toward being ready for the Orioles' Opening Day rotation on Sunday, but several things will have to break right for him to avoid starting the season on the disabled list.
Hill, who has been sidelined with soreness in his left elbow, was able to throw a 26-pitch bullpen session on Sunday. The southpaw came away from that session saying that he thought he could be ready for Opening Day, but pitching coach Rick Kranitz took a slightly more skeptical approach.
The Orioles want Hill to be available for the entire season, so they'll deal with him starting a little late if it gives them a better chance of keeping him healthy for the long haul.
"There's a doubt -- we're three weeks away," said Kranitz. "This particular time, I like to get guys about 25 innings. We were short on [Adam] Loewen last year, not because he didn't have the opportunity to go out there [but] because the performance didn't allow him to get those kinds of innings.
"You've got to be able to log some innings to get out there and know he's going to be able to perform. The last thing I want to do is put him out there before he is ready to go -- or any pitcher, for that matter."
Hill threw mostly fastballs on Sunday, but he said he threw breaking pitches on flat ground and felt fine. He also said that he tried to sneak one past the coaching staff during his mound session but was cautioned not to do so again. Hill expects to throw breaking balls next time out and is itching for even more action.
"It was really a positive day," Hill said shortly after leaving the mound. "I knew I felt great throwing long-toss and I knew it would translate over to the mound, but it's a relief to finally get going, to get out there, get on the mound and throw. We'll take the next step and hopefully get in the games here shortly."
Hill, who was acquired from the Cubs in exchange for a player to be named, has consistently said that he didn't think his injury was serious enough to warrant missing an extended period of time. But here he is, three weeks away from Opening Day without having accumulated a single inning of game experience.
Right now, the plan for Hill is simple. Kranitz wants him to throw another bullpen session on Tuesday, and if that goes well, he'll take a day off and throw batting practice on Thursday. After that, Hill will take two days off and be ready to pitch as early as next Sunday in Jupiter, Fla., against the Cardinals.
"We'll look and see -- if everything really looks good, we'll figure it out," said Kranitz of Hill's trajectory. "But I can't go that far ahead. I really have to go to [Tuesday], and then we start making some decisions. We can't run before we walk, or run before we crawl. We have to just take it day by day."
As recently as two years ago, Hill appeared to be a serious up-and-comer. The former fourth-round Draft pick notched an 11-8 record and a 3.92 ERA for the Cubs that season, striking out 183 batters in 195 innings. But he dealt with back spasms last season and had a difficult year for Triple-A Iowa.
Now, Hill is attempting to shake off his elbow ailment and prove he's still the same pitcher he was in 2007. Hill was enthusiastic about his session on Sunday and optimistic about his chances going forward. The left-hander split his work between the stretch and a normal windup and said he felt comfortable with both deliveries.
"I just wanted to get in there and just get a feel for both," Hill said. "It was a really, really good day. Everything felt like it was starting to come into sync. A lot of the things that we've been working on on the side -- with the week that we had to work on those things -- are showing up in the bullpen."
"His mechanics were good," added Kranitz. "What we tried to do through this process, when he first got here, there were some habits that he formed that we had to break him of or at least get him out of it. But we wanted to make sure he was comfortable first before we started attacking things. I think this gave us a little bit of time to have him see some of his old tapes and understand what we were trying to do, and go through the process and work with him on the mound without a ball. I think he came out today and looked real good."
Hill and Kranitz will continue their work on Tuesday, which was supposed to be the team's lone off-day of the spring without any baseball activity. Kranitz said that Hill is a clear priority and that it was important to get him on track even if it meant working on the day off. And Hill, to his credit, seemed raring to go.
"I really feel [good] right now," Hill said before leaving the field. "There's just enough time in Spring Training where I can get the innings in. As good as I feel today, I feel like I can go out there and pitch."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.