MINNEAPOLIS — Rich Hill had already had Tommy John surgery. A second Tommy John would cost the veteran valuable time — time he didn’t want to lose. And so the starter took an educated, well-researched leap of faith.
Hill, now 40, underwent a primary repair surgery last offseason to repair a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
The idea was that the surgery, which is far newer, would cut down on his recovery time. It did. A global pandemic notwithstanding, things have been smooth sailing for Hill since.
Hill was originally scheduled to join the Twins’ rotation in early June.
Now, he’s on track to be a member of the rotation when the season begins in late July, barring any potential setbacks.
A successful four-inning, live batting practice on Monday, during which an animated Hill grunted or yelled after nearly every pitch, helped cement that.
“This isn’t a one size fits all surgery. This is something that has to be defined as the right kind of patient who can have this surgery, and if it applies to them,” Hill said.
“… I’ve stuck with the program and I’ve been diligent about working out, shoulder program and stuck to the throwing program. And most of the throwing program up to this point, I’ve really kind of executed on my own because of COVID. I think (Monday) was the fifth time I threw to a catcher prior to coming here.”
During the 3 1/2-month layoff, Hill retreated home to the Boston area, where he would go to a park and stream himself throwing into a net over Zoom for members of the Twins’ staff to observe.
Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson said they would Zoom once or twice a week.
As they got deeper into the process, they started having Hill work through a lineup and doing up downs. By the time he came to camp, Johnson estimated he had thrown four bullpens that were around 80 pitches.
With no setbacks, Johnson said there was no reason that Hill wouldn’t be able to give them five or six innings once the season starts, which is good news for the Twins.
When healthy, Hill has posted a 3.30 earned-run average across 63 games in his past three seasons.
“He took nothing for granted. He’s a guy that’s been around, experienced a lot and he just went out there and worked and followed a plan as closely as you could do,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “The effort, the energy, the weekly Zoom bullpens that he would throw, he never missed anything.”
But getting Hill to a point where he felt comfortable enough to pitch this season went beyond just how his elbow felt.
Hill, who conducted a Zoom on Tuesday with reporters while wearing a face mask, said he wasn’t “extremely comfortable,” making any decisions on moving forward with a return to baseball in March and April.
As the situation improved in Massachusetts, he started growing progressively more comfortable with the idea.
Though Hill feels comfortable enough to join his teammates, he’s taken issue with some of the testing protocols because all clubhouse staff members aren’t receiving the same opportunity to get tested every other day that players are.
“Anybody who is around the team should be getting tested just as much as the players are,” Hill said. “… That’s something that should be addressed and should be fixed as soon as possible because they’re going home to their families, they’re going home to their loved ones and it’s not right.”
While Hill seemed encouraged about Major League Baseball making it through the 60-game season, he’s still not sure whether the league will be able to make it through October with some experts warning of a potential second wave of COVID-19.
But if the league does make it to October, he’s confident the Twins will too.
“What we’re capable of as a group is winning the World Series. You certainly see a lot of talk about the lineup, obviously, and I think when we look at the lineup it’s one of the best lineups in baseball. You look at a bullpen that had tremendous success last year, and extremely underrated. And now looking at a rotation that’s been, with (Jose) Berrios and with (Kenta) Maeda jumping in there, getting traded over from LA,” Hill said. "Obviously the pieces of the puzzle are there to make the rotation one of the best in baseball as well. I think when we look at that entire lineup, bullpen, and rotation, we’re in a very good position to do some special things."