How ex-Cub Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness

How ex-Cub Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness

LOS ANGELES — Here’s how Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness to start a playoff game at Dodger Stadium against the Cubs franchise that drafted him 14 years ago.

Hill moved back home to Massachusetts after getting released from the Washington Nationals last June in the middle of his ninth season spent on the Triple-A level. At the age of 35, he started working out with his old American Legion team again, hoping it would be a pit stop on a journey he didn’t want to end.

Hill contacted Jared Porter, the director of professional scouting for the Boston Red Sox at the time who now has the same job with the Cubs. They met at Milton High School — where Hill starred before moving on to the University of Michigan — and Porter can’t even remember who caught the 6-foot-5 lefty during that workout.

But it helped redirect Hill toward Dodger Stadium, where he will stand on a historic mound on Tuesday night and face a star-studded Cubs lineup in a crucial Game 3 in this National League Championship Series.

“Rich really believed in himself,” Porter said. “He deserves all the credit.”

Hill won 11 games for the 2007 Cubs team that captured an NL Central title — and lost Game 3 during that sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks — but until this year had never again reached 20 starts or passed the 100-inning threshold. A series of injuries stalled his career — including Tommy John surgery in 2011 — and his blister issues will absolutely be something to monitor during this tied best-of-seven series.

But Hill was still convinced that he should work as a starter and throw from a higher arm slot. Porter stood behind him and watched him throw from the first-base side of the rubber, another technique teams had encouraged as a way to create more deception as a reliever.

“The first probably 10 or 15 fastballs he threw had tons of life on them,” Porter recalled. “Everything was starting on the outer half of the zone and tailing out of the zone. With Rich, he’s never really gotten hit (hard). He’s gotten in trouble in his career when he hasn’t thrown enough strikes.

“So I was like: ‘Hey, have you ever considered moving over to the third-base side of the rubber?’

“He tried it, and all those balls that were starting in the zone and going out were now starting and staying in the zone because he had the extra foot or so. (Like now) if you watch him now on the extreme third-base side of the rubber.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

The Red Sox agreed to track Hill as a starter for the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League before eventually signing him to a minor-league deal and plugging him into their Triple-A rotation.

“There (were) absolutely humbling parts of being in the independent league,” Hill said, “whether it was traveling from Sugar Land (Texas) on a 6 a.m. flight (or) no bathroom in the dugout and peeing in a bucket.

“Things like that you have to take into account where you’re playing the game because you love it. But it’s also perseverance that you want to continue to get back to the highest level and not give up and continue to grind.”

The Red Sox also hooked Hill up with Brian Bannister, the pitching guru who combines big-league experience with a fluency in analytics, delivering the message that you can pitch backwards and revolve everything around that curveball. Bannister’s influence had once helped turn Zack Greinke into a Cy Young Award winner with the Kansas City Royals.

Hill parlayed last season’s four quality starts for the Red Sox between Sept. 13 and Oct. 1 into a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s. Fourteen more starts (9-3, 2.25 ERA) with the A’s got him flipped to the Dodgers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

“I watch video,” said Ben Zobrist, the most accomplished postseason hitter in this Cubs lineup. “And when I see (Hill) pitching up there, I’m like: ‘That ball should be going a long ways.’ And guys are getting jammed or popping it up. So there must be something with his spin rate or some deception there where it kind of gets above the barrel.”

Hill threw his curveball more than 42 percent of the time this season, and these Cubs haven’t seen his new left-handed look yet. It created seven perfect innings on Sept. 10 at Marlins Park — before Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Hill while fearing the blister problem and thinking about October.

An ex-Cub who almost completely fell off the grid could have a huge impact on this NLCS.

“Every pitch is its own moment,” Hill said. “It’s really taking that cliché of pitch-to-pitch process. But that’s really what I’ve been able to do — (and) that started in Long Island when I was in independent ball.

“That mindset (carried over to) every single opportunity that I’ve had, every single outing that I’ve had. And not getting outside of that is what I believe has made me successful.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”