Monday May 7th, 2007

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."

The curve that batters have seen late in 2006, and early this season, is not the same pitch Hill was throwing at Michigan or in his initial stint with the Cubs. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild explained that the club worked with Hill on "tightening up" his breaking ball and adjusting his release point. "He's been able to spin the ball most of his life," Rothschild said, "but we just took some of the loop out of his curve and made sure it came out in the same spot his fastball did."

Hill's old curve remains part of his arsenal; he uses it occasionally, like a changeup, to mix speeds and planes within his breaking pitches, or to sneak in a strike on a 0-0 count. But he knows the newer, nastier curve -- thrown at about 73-75 miles per hour, 3-5 mph faster than the original one -- has been a key to his breakout season. "To make hitters see something coming out of your hand that looks more like a fastball and breaks late, as opposed to a big, loopy breaking pitch, that's helped me a lot," he said.

Much of Hill's deception comes from his exaggerated pitching motion, which Barrett described, appropriately, as "funky." Everything is normal at the beginning, as Hill has a good, but not huge, leg kick and stays balanced over the back of the rubber. Once his hands split, the mechanics become distinct, almost Andy Pettitte-esque: Hill's bent front arm rises up so that his elbow points to the sky at a 45-degree angle, while his glove hangs down off of his hand. Simultaneously, he rears back with his throwing arm, loading up force to create an over-the-top, downhill delivery in which the ball is revealed to the hitter much later than it is by the majority of MLB pitchers.

While the Cubs bumbled through the early weeks of 2007, struggling to a 7-13 start with Piniella and a payroll of about $110 million, Hill was one of the team's few hot starters. He threw seven innings of one-hit, one-run ball for his first win on April 6 against Milwaukee, and then didn't allow a run in each of his next two outings, wins over Cincinnati and Atlanta. He came back down to earth, dropping his next two starts, but maintained his end-of-April ERA at 1.77 and rebounded to beat Washington on Sunday for his fourth victory.

For a pitcher who was 0-4 at this time in 2006, Hill, one would expect, would be as pleasantly surprised as Cubs fans are about his spring surge. Yet the less-obvious component of his success -- his dedication to sports psychology books such as Taosports' tome Thinking Body, Dancing Mind and Harvey Dorfman's The Mental ABCs of Pitching -- preclude him from expecting anything else.

"Maybe a few years ago, I would have thought, this isn't supposed to be happening," said Hill. "But now, with a positive mindset and a positive thought process, you have to think that, this is the way it should be happening."

Hill was first given the books in the winter of 2004, when he was training in Massachusetts with Craig McLaughlin, a coach at prep school Buckingham Browne & Nichols, and Matt Hyde, a scout for the Yankees. Hill devoured them then, but it still took him the better part of three seasons -- multiple call-ups, the verbal sparring with the Sox, and an agonizingly long wait to get his first W as a big-leaguer -- to put the whole package together. "The more you control your behavior, the better off you are," Hill said. "How you behave on the mound usually dictates how you think, and that translates into everything else."

It translated into a stellar start, and in due time, the Cubs as a whole caught fire, winning five straight and eight of their past nine games to pull over .500 for the first time all season. If they are to catch up with red-hot, 21-10 Milwaukee in the NL Central without the aid of masterful performances from Zambrano, Chicago will need to keep getting help from Hill at the other end of the rotation. For that he'll need to remain, as he has been lately, in control -- of mind, body and curveball.

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