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Thrown for a curve

Late-blooming Hill emerges as unexpected Cubs ace

Posted: Monday May 7, 2007 2:15PM; Updated: Monday May 7, 2007 3:00PM
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Rich Hill uses a newfound curveball to confound opposing batters.
Rich Hill uses a newfound curveball to confound opposing batters.
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CHICAGO -- It came up in a roundabout way, this curious revelation from Cubs left-hander Rich Hill. He was sitting in the home dugout at Wrigley Field on Sunday, discussing what's typically in his headphones before a start -- either U2, Audioslave or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The conversation then turned to his guitar-playing hobby, or current lack thereof, seeing that the Gibson Les Paul he bought mostly collects dust in his Chicago apartment. Asked if he plays the instrument lefty or righty, he said righty -- at which point he felt it relevant to note that he was not, originally, a lefty.

"That didn't come along until I was 5 or 6 years old," he says. "I was in my backyard, and my brothers took the glove off my left hand, put a new one on my right hand and basically tied my arm around my back, and forced me to throw lefty."

At a position that requires even its most successful practitioners to be changing constantly -- speeds, locations, delivery planes, grips, pitch sequences -- Hill's first move was to change throwing arms, at the behest of his one of his older brothers, John. Rich still has his first glove at the family home in Milton, Mass., where he was the youngest of five kids, all college athletes. But he never reverted to throwing righty.

It was a good decision for his pitching career, and a good thing for the 15-14, second-place Cubs, but rather unfortunate for the hitters who have been flailing at his southpaw curveball this spring. Through Sunday, Hill was 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and has, in a surprise turn of events, been the most effective lefty in the National League.

Hill's bio can be constructed with a series of contradictions: He's a southpaw who wasn't originally a southpaw. He's a de facto MLB ace who wasn't expected to be in the top half of the Cubs' rotation. He's a 27-year-old curveball artist who wasn't allowed to throw the pitch -- a rule imparted by another older brother, former college pitcher Lloyd -- until he was 17. And he's a once-struggling hurler who Ozzie Guillen said -- in May of last year, after the infamous Barrett-Pierzynski fight -- "was going to make Dusty Baker be fired." Hill rebounded to be a soothing presence for new manager Lou Piniella during April.

A former star at the University of Michigan, Hill was drafted in 2002 and first called up to the Cubs in June 2005, going 0-2 with a 9.13 ERA in limited work. He started 2006 by losing his first four decisions -- the last a May 20 loss to the White Sox, after which he made headlines by calling Pierzynski "gutless" and inspiring Guillen's tirade.

It wasn't until after a two-month trip back to Triple-A Iowa that Hill returned to Chicago to record his first MLB win, on July 27, and then went on a 6-3 tear to close the season. He entered Spring Training in '07 as the Cubs' potential No. 4 starter behind Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.

While Zambrano has started slow (3-2 with a 5.80 ERA), Lilly has been decent (2-2, 2.82) and Marquis has been strong (4-1, 2.09), Hill has been dominant. He's mastered his control to the point that that his WHIP of 0.912 is second in the NL only to the Braves' Tim Hudson. With former ace Mark Prior lost for the season, Hill has been a major boost to the back of the Cubs' rotation.

Hill's late-blooming, late-breaking curveball -- one that is reminiscent of Barry Zito's famous hook -- has become his signature pitch. Said catcher Michael Barrett: "[Hill's] curveball is so electric that the first couple of times I caught him, I had a tendency to come up on the curve because it bites so much. You just don't see a left-handed curveball like that anymore. When he's good, it doesn't hang, and it's nearly unhittable."

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