While the Cubs were playing out the string last September, Rich Hill was busy proving he truly had arrived as a major-leaguer.
After going 3-1 with a 1.93 earned-run average in the final month of the '06 season, Hill picked up where he left off Friday in the Cubs' 9-3 victory over Milwaukee.
Staked to a six-run lead before he took the mound, Hill put it on cruise control, carrying a perfect game into the sixth inning and finishing with a one-hit, no-walk outing before a pro-Cubs crowd of 41,758.
"Wrigley North, is that what they call it?" Hill said. "It was a lot of fun out there."
At 27, Hill appears to be hitting his stride after a few false starts along the way.
"Just give him the ball every five days and let the young man pitch," manager Lou Piniella said. "He's right at the age, physically and mentally, where everything should be coming together. And it has."
Hill was still sore two days ago from a blister on his left index finger, but he said he felt fine Friday. He retired the first 15 batters he faced before Corey Hart homered to left-center field on a 1-0 pitch leading off the sixth.
"If something like that happens, let's face it, that's pretty special," Hill said. "Everything has to align the right way for [a no-hitter] to happen, so, no, I wasn't thinking about it."
But that was the only ball hit hard off Hill, who even showed a rare display of emotion after striking out Prince Fielder to end the sixth inning. He didn't walk a man in five Cactus League appearances and kept his perfect record intact, throwing 58 strikes out of 78 pitches.
"Yeah, we'll do that all season," he said with a smile.
After playing two games in cold weather in Cincinnati, the Cubs moved indoors for the relatively balmy 60-degree conditions of Miller Park.
"I think this will help us, playing indoors," Piniella said before the game. "It's cool out there [on the field], but it wasn't cold. The ball didn't carry all that well, so the air might be a little heavy."
The Cubs promptly put up a six-spot in the first off Brewers right-hander Dave Bush, ignited by Alfonso Soriano's leadoff double. Aramis Ramirez drove home the first run with a single, and Brewers center fielder Bill Hall got turned around on Cliff Floyd's line drive shot to straightaway center, watching it go over his head for an RBI double. He compounded the situation with an errant throw that allowed Ramirez to score the third run.
Michael Barrett then halted an 0-for-11 skid with a run-scoring single to make it 4-0, and the rout was on. Mark DeRosa's two-run homer added to the carnage, and Bush got a mock ovation when he struck out Hill after seven of the first eight batters reached base.
The Cubs added two in the seventh off reliever Claudio Vargas, and Ronny Cedeno smacked a pinch homer off Vargas in the eighth to end the scoring.
While the hitters were getting back into spring training form, it was Hill's overall dominance that stole the show. Following the fine performances of Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis with one of his own, Hill showed the Cubs' rotation might be better than advertised.
"The great additions of Ted and Jason have been unbelievable," Hill said. "Talking baseball all the time. It has been a lot of fun with those guys, and it's a great addition to the team. I look forward to good things happening."
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