Second baseman Aaron Hill thriving in the center of the D-backs’ order
PHOENIX — It’s an odd fit to say the least.
In the Arizona Diamondbacks’ clubhouse, as players shuffle back from the training room, dining area or showers, they’re greeted by a locker to their immediate right.
It would seem like prime real estate for the team’s chatter box, the kind of guy who feeds off of commotion and constant conversation.
However, its occupant couldn’t be further from that description. An eight-year veteran, Aaron Hill still feels more comfortable being seen rather than heard.
The soft-spoken second baseman does plenty of talking for the D-backs, but as has been the case lately, he does so mostly with his bat.
Since the calendar flipped to August, Hill is hitting .417 with 10 RBI and an OPS of .889. Yet being the consummate professional that he is, the 31-year-old is treating his recent hot streak with modest enthusiasm.
“You just get into a good routine, and once you get into that you just try to stay with it,” Hill said. “You do whatever it takes to get ready for the next game, do your homework on that night’s pitcher, work on your approach, do what you have to do in the cages and go out there and play.
“I’d love to say I want to go get four hits every game, but I’m just taking what I get right now and trying to keep working hard in the process.”
Hill’s rather matter-of-fact approach to the game is as refreshing as it is necessary given the type of season he’s been forced to endure in 2013.
After signing a three-year, $35 million extension back in February to stay with the club through 2016, the two-time Silver Slugger seemed poised for a big season. Yet, baseball has a cruel way of humbling even the most deserving of players from time to time.
Ten games into the season, Hill, who was batting .306 with two home runs and six RBI, was forced to the disabled list with a nonunion fracture in his left hand after getting struck with a pitch thrown by Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher James McDonald on April 9.
While the original diagnosis called for a four-to-six week recovery time, Hill missed a total of 63 games, spanning from April 16-June 23.
Despite his absence, the team managed to go 33-30 and crawled its way to the top of the National League West division.
When Hill finally returned to lineup June 25, the D-backs’ hold on first place was supposed to be strengthened. But somehow, the second baseman’s presence brought a reverse effect.
The former All-Star collected 10 hits in his first eight games back from the DL, yet Arizona went just 1-7 in that span.
It was a sign of things to come.
Over the last six weeks, the D-backs have fallen 10.5 games in the National West standings and are currently sitting in a better position to compete for the National League’s second Wild Card than they are for the division title.
“Personally, you never want to get injured,” said Hill. “But the guys did a great job picking up the slack [when I was injured]. But, the last couple weeks, we’ve just been battling trying to keep pace with the Dodgers. Obviously it’s not happening right now.
“We just haven’t gotten going. It’s one of those things where I wish there was an easy answer for it, because then it wouldn’t happen. Some days you put up a lot of runs and some days you don’t, but we’re still looking for that sense of consistency where we pull off 10 or 12 in a row like a lot of other teams have. It’s important to stay lighthearted about it and not stress too much.”
While the recent tumble from first place has put some distance between the team and its postseason aspirations, little of it has had to do with the stress-free Hill.
Outside of a small hiccup in mid-July, the veteran infielder has provided a steady hand for an offense that has looked misguided more often than not these days.
“It’s was kind of like spring training,” said Hill of his first few weeks back in the lineup. “When you miss two and a half months, or whatever it was, it takes a little bit to get back going. Even though I spent a couple of games rehabbing, when you miss so much time you have to get back into a rhythm and start to see some things again. [The hand] feels good right now, so I’ll roll with it and see what happens.”
What’s happened over the past 10 games for Hill — leading the team in hits (16), home runs (3) and RBI (10) — has been nothing short of remarkable.
Where did the surge come from?
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson offered up his best guess Monday.
“In the Boston game [on Aug. 3], he struck out twice and made an error,” Gibson said. “We talked after that, and I said to him, ‘Let’s just act like the game just started, you just had a great BP and nothing bad has happened yet in this game.’ It was just about bringing him back to zero, and he got some hits and has been really swinging the bat well since then.
“It’s not necessarily because of what I said, but since that time he’s playing good. But be fair to him, he missed a lot of time. It takes a lot of time [to get back], and his legs weren’t really under him. He kind of got tired. I’ve moved him around a bit too, but he’s been making good contact.”
Gibson’s latest lineup adjustment — one more or less forced on him by the rash of injuries to likes of Miguel Montero and Eric Chavez — has the unassuming Hill in the cleanup spot behind All-Star Paul Goldschmidt.
And for a guy who hit .302 with 26 home runs and 85 RBI from every spot in the order but the No. 4 hole in 2012, Hill has acquitted himself quite nicely — albeit in small sample size.
Monday night’s second-inning home run off of Baltimore Orioles right-hander Scott Feldman was his third in as many games and an RBI single in the seventh gave him a career-best five straight games with at least two hits.
“To be honest, I don’t care if I’m [the cleanup hitter],” said Hill. “I’d love to say I’m giving Paul Goldschmidt some support, because he’s putting up such a good year and I just hope he keeps it going. I think in a perfect world we’d have [Eric] Chavez there, because he’s a big left-handed power bat.
It’s an odd fit to say the least.
A team struggling to keep pace in the pennant race has put its faith in a 5-foot-11 second baseman to produce in a key run-producing spot in the order.
But whether it’s in the middle of a locker room or the middle of a lineup card, well, Aaron Hill doesn’t seem to be fazed by being placed at the center of attention.
“I told Gibby that it doesn’t matter to me where he puts me, whether it’s two, three, four, five or wherever,” he said. “Regardless, I’m going to be swinging and hopefully putting the ball in play. That’s all I’m focused on.”