ATLANTA—There are few times during the course of a season when a one-run lead looks as large as it did Thursday night for the Cubs and Rich Hill.
Mixing sharp breaking curveballs with pinpoint fastballs, Hill was masterful in a 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves to give the Cubs their fourth victory in their last five games.
Hill has pitched well almost every outing this season, failing to go at least six innings only once. Thursday, however, may have been his best start of the year. Hill allowed just three hits in eight innings with only one walk and a career-high tying 11 strikeouts.
Even more impressive is that the victory came in his third outing this season against the Braves. In his career, Hill is 3-0 against Atlanta and has allowed only three earned runs in 28 2/3 innings.
Hill went seven innings and allowed just one earned run last Saturday at Wrigley Field, getting a no-decision in an eventual 5-3 Atlanta victory.
"The last time I had to dig deep and there was a lot of stuff I had to battle through," Hill said. "This game I felt good from the start. You get a few of those games each year."
Manager Lou Piniella, back in the dugout after serving a four-game suspension, lifted Hill after 108 pitches, including 75 strikes.
"We needed a good game out of Hill because our bullpen from that Milwaukee series was used quite a bit," Piniella said. "We were able to rest our bullpen today and win."
Ryan Dempster earned his 12th save with a perfect ninth. It was the first save opportunity for Dempster since May 26.
Hill has gone beyond 100 pitches five times this season with a high of 111 in another eight-inning gem against the Braves on April 19. Piniella said he didn't think about letting Hill try for the complete game, even though the lefty didn't face any high-stress innings. He didn't face more than four batters in any inning.
"We've been watching pitch counts all year," Piniella said. "We want to keep our starters as fresh as possible."
The Cubs' offense did just enough, scoring single runs in the first and second innings with Alfonso Soriano in the middle of both.
Soriano, hitting .469 in June, led off with a triple and scored on a Felix Pie single off the leg of Atlanta starter Chuck James. The Cubs had a chance for a big inning with runners on first and second and no outs, but Matt Murton struck out looking and Michael Barrett hit into a double play.
Soriano drove in Ryan Theriot with a two-out single in the second to give Hill a 2-0 lead.
"Soriano got us going with that three-bagger," Piniella said. "And Soriano, with nice two-out hitting, (found) a hole."
That would be it for the offense, which had only one hit after the second.
But except for Andruw Jones taking a 1-0 fastball down the right-field line for a homer in the second, Atlanta couldn't do anything with Hill.
Hill struck out Edgar Renteria, who came into the game hitting .325, three times and had a stretch from the fourth inning to the eighth in which he struck out eight of 12 hitters.
"As the game goes on, you realize what's going on and you don't want to give in at all," Hill said. "You don't want them to even breathe, you want to keep your foot down."