By Sean McAdam
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Change is inevitable for most pro athletes, but Rich Hill has weathered more than his share in the last year.
First, he transitioned from starter to reliever last year, a concession partly made by a shoulder injury from the year before. Then, Hill joined the Red Sox organization last summer, the fourth team he's been with in his career. Finally, at the behest of former pitching coach John Farrell, Hill began throwing sidearm on a full-time basis.
With the changes behind him, Hill, a native of Milton, is free to concentrate fully on baseball and the roster battle to make the 2011 Red Sox.
Hill, who turns 31 in two weeks, finds himself part of a crowd in contention for two final spots in the Boston bullpen. Fellow lefties Hideki Okajima, Dennys Reyes and Andrew Miller are in the mix, along with righties Scott Atchison, Matt Albers and Alfredo Aceves, but Hill insists he doesn't spend much time analyzing his chances.
"Those are all distractions that you can't control,'' Hill said, "so you've got to be able to control those distractions and do what you have to do and staying in your routine. That's all that really matters.''
Hill's 2010 season began in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization, with Hill clinging to the notion that he could still be a successful starter, as he had been when he was 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA for the 2007 Chicago Cubs.
But after mid-season, he opted out of his Triple A deal with St. Louis and went to Pawtucket, where he started and relieved but began eying the bullpen as his long-term assignment.
Farrell thought Hill might benefit from the change in delivery, since it would make his motion more deceptive.
"I think it gives a different look out of the bullpen,'' Hill said. "Lefty-on-lefty or even lefty-on-righty, it created a different angle. Really, it's something that has come easy. It's natural. It feels like free and easy when I'm down there.
"John and I were talking about it. They liked what they saw from down there and wondered if I could stay down there all the time. I had done it before when I was starting. Every once in a while, I'd drop down to throw a breaking ball or fastball to a lefty. It gave them a surprise look that they weren't used to and made them feel very uncomfortable in the box. If you can make a hitter feel uncomfortable, that's a big advantage.''
The change was a significant one, but Hill didn't have to be convinced of the wisdom of the switch. From the beginning, he saw the benefits.
"I'm all in,'' he said. "I enjoy it. I feel that it's something hopefully will promote longevity and help me pitch longer at this level. (The sidearm motion) feels natural. I think it's always been there. Just to make the switch, it's really buying into it and applying yourself. You're not going to say, 'OK, if it doesn't work, I'm going to switch (back) at the drop of a hat.' You have to be persistent and be committed to it.''
Given an eight-game audition last September, Hill began dropping down with most of his pitches and saw immediate results.
"(Hitters) were uncomfortable,'' he recalled. "When you have that, that gives you some confidence. When (even) righties starting reacting, that's when you know there's something there. That's what made me want to explore this a little more.''
While Hill has bought into the changes mentally, the execution, he freely admits, still needs some refinement.
"Part of the process now,'' he said, "is finding the consistency (with the release point). One thing we've been working on here is trying to get the fastball down and in on the righties and away from the lefties. That's the biggest thing now, with the fastball. The changeup's been great, breaking ball's been great. If I can command the fastball, that's just going to build the pitch-to-pitch process and help me become more efficient.''
In the Boston bullpen, five spots are spoken for, all by righties. The Sox could carry one, two or no lefthanders, depending on spring performance, options and other factors.
But whether Hill makes the Opening Day roster or begins the season in Pawtucket, he would prefer not to be restricted to a role as a lefty specialist.
"I'd like to be able to go out there and get lefties and righties out,'' he said. "I believe I can do that. I did it last year. There were qualitiy righty hitters that I got out. It creates a whole other level, where you can go, where you can take this.''
The experience of pitching for the home team last September only whetted Hill's appetite. He had interest from other teams last winter, but elected to re-sign with Boston even if it meant accepting a minor league deal.
After his cameo last fall, he feels more familiar and comfortable this time around.
"Coming into a spring training,'' he said, "you go to camp where you know trainers, front office, the guys on the team. That without question contributed to coming back.''
So, too, did the opportunity to pitch for a team with championship goals. That he's joining such a team in his hometown makes it all the more rewarding.
"There are only a few places like this,'' said Hill of the Boston experience. "You want to be part of something like this. For me, it just happens to be made better that this is where I'm from, where I grew up and the team that I enjoyed watching.
"It's something that not many guys get to experience. Guys that play at this level, that's a great achievement. But to do it in your own hometown is something special.''