Does That Hill Turn a Corner?
The AZL Cubs defeated the AZL A's 3-2 at Fitch Park Field #3 this morning.
The game featured another fine outing by RHP Julio Pena, and the victory was probably saved by a nifty 6-4-3 DP to end the top of the 8th inning, started with a super stop by SS Junior Lake, then a quick flip with a fast turn by 2B George Matheus, and completed with a nice stretch by 1B Sean Hoorelbeke. Too bad AZL games aren't televised, because that one would have made the highlight reel!
Today's AZL Cubs offensive heroes were RF Nelson Perez (a double and an RBI single) and catcher Jose Guevara (a double and RBI single through a drawn-in infield).
Prior to the game, Rich Hill threw a simulated game that featured his new delivery, and it looks like he may actually have found the cure for his version of Steve Blass Disease.
He no longer tilts his shoulder and head back to the exent he had been doing (a la Fernando Valenzuela), which allows him to keep his eyes on the catcher's target. That might sound like a simple thing to fix, but we're talking body memory here, and that can be a stubborn force to work against.
And the results this morning were that he was able to throw his fastball and curve over the plate pitch-after-pitch, just like he was doing in 2006 and into Spring Training 2007 and through most of last season. He was absolutely unhittable today.
The curves literally buckled the knees of the young AZL Cubs hitters, and (probably more importantly) he was able to consistently throw his fastball for strikes And maybe most importantly, Hill looked relaxed and he even was able to crack a smile at one point. (One of the telltale symptoms of Steve Blass Disease is the inability to smile).
Now the key is whether he can keep the new delivery in his head and make it repeatable from outing-to-outing. If he can, the Cubs might have the rotation starter they think they need for the stretch run right in their own backyard (Fitch Park).
Kudos to AZL Cubs pitching coach Rick Tronerud and Cubs Minor League Pitching Coordinator Mark Riggins for getting Hill as far along as they have in just ten days. How much longer Hill will remain at Fitch Park is probably still TBD, but I would think getting him back to Iowa ASAP to build up his pitch count, face tougher hitters, and work with umpires who can call balls & strikes a little bit more consistently than is the case with the "rookie" umps who work in the AZL, would be a priority.
In case you are wondering what AZL umpires are like, they work in two-man crews, and most of them are in the early to mid-20's (think Richie Cunningham and Potsie), and they tend to make more mistakes than do umps at the higher levels. They can also sometimes be a bit overly thin-skinned.
Like today, in the top of the 5th inning, the home plate umpire called time and stepped out in front of the plate to announce (for all to hear) that the Cubs were trying to show him up and they better stop that and get back to work.
What happened to cause this interruption?
Well, at Fitch Park, the scoreboard is operated by one of the Cubs pitchers who is not scheduled to pitch that day. The pitcher operating the scoreboard, as well as another Cubs pitcher who is "charting" the game and a third Cubs pitcher who operates the radar gun, all sit behind home plate in a cage. (The opposing team has two or three guys back there, too)
And after a pitch was called a ball that everybody in the park thought was a strike, the error light lit up on the scoreboard. And the umpire saw it. And he got mad. Blew a gasket. Had a cow.
Or as Governor LePetomane would say... "Harrumph!!"
On the injury rehab front, Angel Guzman (September 2007 TJS) expects to be at Fitch Park another two or three weeks. This actually makes sense and it explains why Guzman has remained at Fitch Park even though it's pretty clear he is ready to move on up.
See, the Cubs can send Gooz out for a maximum of 30 days on a minor league rehab assignment, and then they have to make sure that he doesn't spend more than 19 days on optional assignment to the minors after that (that's a total of 49 days maximum combined), in order to preserve his 4th minor league option for next season (in case the Cubs need to send him to the minors for some work at the end of Spring Training or any other time during the '09 season).
So operating under those parameters, the absolute earliest the Cubs can send Guzman out on a rehab assignment would be July 14th (with the rehab ending on August 12th, followed by no more than 19 days on optional assignment, 8/13 through 8/31), and that's only if they are planning to recall him from his optional assignment immediately when rosters expand on September 1st.
And the Cubs have signed their 2008 2nd round draft pick, RHP Aaron Shafer (Wichita State). Shafer received a $625K bonus, which is right about exactly what he should have expected to receive based on his slot (overall pick #65).
So the Cubs have now signed 25 of their first 27 2008 Rule 4 Draft picks, with RHP Andrew Cashner (1st round pick out of TCU) and RHP Alex Wilson (10th round pick out of Texas A&M) the only two picks out of the first 27 left outstanding.
The deadline to sign players selected in the Rule 4 Draft--as well as non-drafted free-agents (NDFA) who were eligible for selection in the Rule 4 Draft--is August 15th.