FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -All Rick Kranitz needed to see were three pitches from Rich Hill before he picked up the bullpen phone to call Chicago Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"I saw a couple of pitches, and I said, 'Whoa.' I called down to the dugout and said, 'Hey, Larry, you might want to come down and see this, because this is unbelievable,' " said Kranitz, then the Cubs' Triple-A pitching coach. "After the game, Larry came over and watched him. And he was like, 'Oh my gosh, we don't have a guy that throws that kind of breaking ball on our team right now.' "
Hill, a fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan a couple of years earlier, had been summoned to the major league club that day to serve as an emergency backup for a spring training game. When it became clear that the young left-hander wouldn't be needed in the game, he started the bullpen session.
That year, Hill, armed with the devastating curveball, struck out 194 batters in 130 2/3 minor league innings. Two seasons later, he won 11 games for the Cubs and was fifth in the National League with 183 strikeouts.
Now, just a little more than a year after being labeled one of the best young pitchers in baseball, Hill is in the Orioles' camp, looking to stay healthy, earn a rotation spot and erase the memories of a brutal 2008 season in which the left-hander went from a Cubs rotation fixture to pitching in Rookie-level ball.
"People get the misconception that this has been going on for a long time when it's like, no, a year ago, I was one of the top five pitchers in the National League," Hill said yesterday. "People who understood will say: 'He was right there a year ago. He just needs to get healthy and get back on track.' It's what have you done for me lately in this game, or with anything. That's the way it should be, especially for starting pitching. You have to go out there and perform every time you take the ball."
With nothing to lose, several open rotation spots and a nice support system in place that includes several former Cubs coaches and executives, the Orioles acquired Hill this month for future considerations. Hill is out of options and wasn't going to make the Cubs' Opening Day roster, and Chicago had tired of waiting for him to find his command that completely disappeared over the past year.
He walked just 63 batters in 195 innings in his breakout 2007 campaign, but he made just five starts for the Cubs last year before being sent to the minors after issuing 18 walks in 19 2/3 innings. In the minors, Hill walked 44 batters in 47 2/3 innings at three levels, including a stint with the Cubs' Rookie-level team.
His control problems led to speculation that Hill had followed in the footsteps of Rick Ankiel and become the latest pitcher to contract "Steve Blass Disease," named after the former Pittsburgh Pirates starter who lost the ability to throw strikes. Kranitz dismissed that theory, as did Hill, who maintains that his season-long control problems were the result of a back problem and then shoulder tendinitis.
"I don't know the situations with those guys, but for me, it was physical," said Hill, 28. "Obviously, your confidence suffers when you're not throwing the ball where you want it to be, but I wasn't throwing the ball where I wanted to throw it because my back was bothering me really, really bad. I was in pain; I couldn't finish pitches."
Hill said the back pain forced him to abandon his regular release point and resulted in his mechanics getting out of whack. He acknowledged his familiarity with Kranitz, the Orioles' pitching coach, and Alan Dunn, the team's bullpen coach, made Baltimore the ideal spot if he were to be traded from the Cubs. Kranitz was Hill's pitching coach at Triple-A Iowa in 2005, and Dunn coached Hill at Double-A Tennessee in 2005 and Iowa in 2006. Those were the seasons in which Hill took huge steps toward the majors.
"I think everything clicked for him," Dunn said. "He was very comfortable with his mechanics, and he could repeat his delivery. He was just locked in."
Knowing Hill's problems last year, the Orioles are being cautious with the pitcher, hoping their approach helps him regain some confidence. Manager Dave Trembley said yesterday that Hill would have to pitch his way out of the rotation to not make the club.
"Obviously, we're aware of what his background has been, but I try to stay away from the obvious and not bring those things up to him and draw attention to it," Trembley said. "It's a new start. He's getting an opportunity with a club that feels very good about having him here."
Hill got off to a rocky spring start yesterday, making errant tosses to first base on his first two throws of pitcher fielding practice. However, in his bullpen session later in the day, Hill drew praise from Trembley and Kranitz.
"I definitely learned a lot from last year," said Hill, who maintains he's healthy. "If I didn't learn anything from last year, it's something that is doomed to possibly repeat itself. The health, the success and the confidence, it's all a big puzzle you want to put together. I'm definitely excited to be here."