Hill pleased with progress, optimistic for season

640550.jpg

Hill pleased with progress, optimistic for season

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After undergoing Tommy John surgery last June, Rich Hill won't be ready to start the season on April 5. But he doesn't expect to be sidelined much longer than a month after the season opener.

"Absolutely, no doubt about it,'' said Hill. "We look at March 1 and two months away from there . . . that's a lot of time in my mind. So I think that's absolutely possible.''

Hill is not alone in his optimism. Signed to a minor league deal over the winter, the Red Sox purchased his contract and added him to the 40-man roster earlier this week, weeks before Hill's opt-out clause would have forced a decision.

The message was obvious: The Red Sox believe that Hill will be healthy, and sooner rather than later.

"I think all the work I put in is paying off,'' said Hill.

Hill could be a valuable weapon for the Sox. In limited playing time last season, he held opposing lefties to a .115 (3-for-26) batting average.

For now, however, Hill is focused on his recovery and completing his rehabilitation.

"I just had my fourth bullpen today,'' said Hill. "There aren't any breaking balls or changeups yet. We're working changeups on flat ground. Breaking balls are probably a week-and-a-half away. Long toss is unrestricted. I think now it's a matter of building up endurance off the mound and keep working on repetition of mechanics.

"For the fourth time off the mound, I'm really pleased with how it's been going. The elbow is feeling stronger.''

Hill has progressed so far that the toughest challenge is resisting the urge to speed up his program. But that would put his recovery in jeopardy, and tough as it is, he must be patient.

"I feel like I could have thrown live BP today,' he said. "However, you don't want to go out there and risk anything. Everyone I've talked to says, 'Do the best that you can at the stage you're at and move on.' ''

Should Hill be ready to pitch for the Sox on May 1, his recovery time will be just shy of 11 months. Since he's not starting -- and in fact, will be used mostly as a lefty specialist, tasked with facing only a batter or two -- he needn't worry about getting stretched out to 90-100 pitches, the way Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, two other Sox pitchers who are coming off Tommy John, must.

Once he begins using his entire repertoire, Hill must guard against any setbacks. It's not unusual for pitchers close to the rehab finish line to experience soreness after throwing breaking pitches for the first time in 10 or so months.

"I'm expecting to feel good,'' he said, "but I haven't had a day where I have to take step back. That could still happen.''

Hill has a decision of sorts to make soon -- whether to use the low three-quarter delivery he used with great effectiveness the previous two seasons or return to a more conventional over-the-top delivery.

"Obviously, over-the-top is the way I threw when I was a starter'' said Hill. "That's not going to be my role here, starting. As soon as we start throwing breaking balls and full bullpens, from there I'll probably decide which route to take.''

Dr. James Andrews, who pioneered the Tommy John procedure and performed it on Hill, assured him that the lower arm angle was not the cause of the ligament tear.

In the meantime, all the rehab work and arm exercises Hill has done has had some unintended consequences in that it also served to strengthen his shoulder and entire body.

"Everything benefits,'' he said. "Overall, your whole body is stronger.''

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

bruins_ryan_spooner_120216.jpg

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.