07/19/2004 2:28 PM - By Paul Warner
It went well beyond hitting em where they aint and it was far too long to be a lucky streak. Heck, some would have even called it a career.
No matter what your perspective, T-Bones second baseman Chad Hills three-week assault on Northern League pitching from June 20 to July 9 was nothing short of amazing. With three hits against Fargo-Moorhead on July 9, the 23-year-old extended his multiple-hit streak to seven consecutive games and had recorded at least two hits in 12 of his last 16.
In doing so, the North Carolina native raised his batting average 172 points from .119 on June 19 to .291 on July 9. Although Hills streak of multiple-hit games ended with an 0-for-3 night at the plate on July 10, it did little to tarnish what the hitter had accomplished through the first half of the season.
"Chad Hill is the most improved player on the team," said Kansas City manager Al Gallagher. "We have a hitting coach in Darryl (Motely) whos a former major leaguer and a great teacher. Hes been working hard with Chad and its starting to pay off."
Thats putting it mildly. From the middle of June to the beginning of July, Hills had the baseball equivalent of the golden touch. His drives found gaps, his pop-ups found grass, and his liners found holes.
Had it not been for an 0-for-1 performance at the plate, including two walks against Joliet on June 28, Hill would have hit in 17 straight games. That feat would have surpassed the Northern Leagues longest streak for the year of 16 games set by St. Pauls Tonayne Brown last month. As it was, Hill hit safely in 10 straight games, one short of the T-Bones longest mark in 2004.
The snowball effect
Hills firecracker of a season started out with little more than a pop. His playing time was sparse early on, to say the least, as he appeared in just nine of the teams first 17 games of the season while filling several roles; most often as a defensive replacement or pinch runner.
"At the end of spring training, I was feeling good," Hill said. "But I sat a little bit at the beginning of the season and it took me a few at-bats to get back into it."
Getting back into it became increasingly difficult as he had just 13 at-bats through those first 17 games and was hitting a miniscule .077 into the second week of June. Soon, he found himself in a one of sports most familiar cases of catch-22: He couldnt contribute as much as he wanted without more opportunities, but he couldnt get more opportunities unless he contributed more.
Moreover, with veteran and 2003 NL All-Star Rick Prieto ahead of him as the teams starting second baseman, it seemed as though Hills time would never come.
But then something happened.
Gallagher gave the T-Bones starting lineup a complete makeover after the teams slow start in May. Prieto was moved to center field and Hill found his name on the lineup card more and more frequently until he eventually became the teams every-day second baseman on June 7th. He has been hitting ever since.
"My confidence was kind of low early on, but Mot(ley) and Al kept encouraging me and told me to keep it up," Hill said. "Then, the balls started falling for me and its been kind of like a snowball effect since then."
A student of the game
The art of hitting is nothing new to Hill. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound rookie is just two years removed from batting .408 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs at Catawba College in his home state. In his junior season, Hill set the schools record for most hits in a season with 80.
But the transition to the professional game is a difficult one. In addition to playing nearly twice as many games and the obvious improvement in the oppositions skill levels, there is a much stronger emphasis on the mental aspect of the game.
"When youre playing every day youve got to be careful not to get too high or fall too low," Hill said. "If youve got a 4-for-4 or an 0-for-4, youve got to come to the park early and get your work in and forget about the last game."
In addition to getting more playing time, Hill credits his work with Motley and his teammates for his recent success. Motley, who spent six years in the major leagues with the KC Royals and Atlanta Braves, is in his second year as the teams hitting coach.
"Mot told me to raise my hands and move them back a little more in my stance so I can see the ball better," Hill said. "The adjustment helps me see the ball for a longer period of time. Its awesome having a guy like Mot, who played in the majors, to teach you about hitting. You automatically give a guy like that a lot more respect than you would for some guy off the street.
Plus, weve got veterans like Eddie (Pearson) and Ray (Brown) wholl give you advice. With those guys, I just sit back, shut up, listen, and do as they say.
With Hills hot hitting and the continued improvement of the teams pitching staff, there is no doubt that the T-Bones are a different team than they were in May and in early June.
"It just feels like a new, fresh start," Hill said. "Weve been playing much better baseball lately and hopefully itll carry over."