Cubs' fate rests on young Hill's arm
Fresh off an impressive start, lefty aims to keep his team alive
CHICAGO -- From a game that meant absolutely nothing, Rich Hill learned a lesson that may help him in the biggest game of his career.
Hill, 27, makes his first career playoff start on Saturday afternoon when he leads the Cubs into Game 3 of their National League Division Series against the Diamondbacks. His club is one game away from elimination, and the hopes of a team, a ballpark, a city and a nationwide fan base ride on his left arm.
The start follows Hill's finest game in months, a six-inning, one-hit showing in a 4-0 win over the Reds. That game, however, could scarcely have taken place in a more different set of circumstances. The Sept. 29 contest against Cincinnati came the day after Chicago clinched the National League Central -- it had no impact whatsoever on the Cubs' prospects.
"That game in Cincinnati, I think it was just almost a game where there was no pressure," Hill said on Friday. "We had won the division, and I came out there and pitched relaxed. I felt all year long there were a few games out there where I fought myself. That's part of the learning process. I look forward to tomorrow, just going in there nice and relaxed and not thinking too much, and it's just another game."
According to Cubs manager Lou Piniella, that experience is more valuable than it might seem. The situation is drastically different, but the thought process should not be. Just do your job, kid. Chuck it and make 'em hit it.
"I told him the other day in Cincinnati when he pitched that that's as good as he can throw the ball," Piniella said on Friday. "There was no pressure. We had clinched. He went out there and relaxed and just threw the ball. And I told him, 'You should learn from that experience.' If he throws the ball that way here tomorrow, he'll have a lot of success."
In fairness to Hill, he's already had a lot of success. Though his résumé is shorter and his face fresher than rotation-mates Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly, neither clearly outpitched Hill in 2007. His ERA (3.92) slotted right in between Lilly's (3.83) and Zambrano's (3.95). His strikeout total (183) was higher than any of his teammates, and in fact the highest of any left-hander in the National League. In his first full season as a big league starter, Hill firmly established himself as one of the league's best hurlers of any age or experience level.
The playoffs, however, are a different game. And pitching to keep the Cubs alive in the playoffs? That's the kind of thing that keeps the unprepared awake at night. Hill swears he's not unprepared. And in fact, he's looking forward to the opportunity.
"It'll be fun," he said. "It'll be a lot of fun. I know that the crowd is going to be behind us 100 percent, whether we're up or down. It doesn't matter, they're going to be there for the whole nine innings. For me personally it's going to be just fun. I don't know how else to put it."
Working to Hill's advantage is that he's definitely not the excitable type. A low-key New Englander, he ought not get caught up in the madness of an elimination game at Wrigley Field.
"It's just another game, really," he said. "If you try to make it more than it is, yeah, outside the lines, it's hyped up and it's the playoffs, it is a big deal. But when you get inside the lines, it's the same exact mentality that you've taken all year long, attack and be aggressive."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.