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.''