PHOENIX – A year ago Shawn Hill was contemplating the end of his pitching career, tired of trying to pitch through pain that never went away, never finding a solution to his woes no matter how often he went under the knife.
There was the first Tommy John surgery in 2004, not long after holding Cuba to two runs over six innings in an Olympic semi-final despite a torn ligament in his right elbow, radial nerve decompression surgery in 2007, and then another elbow reconstruction in 2009.
Each time the hurt returned all too quickly, his future again thrown into doubt.
The 31-year-old right-hander was at his wit’s end last January when he visited Tampa Bay Rays physician Dr. Koco Eaton, who pinpointed the problem to a muscle by Hill’s collarbone that was pinching an artery and a nerve — a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome.
Surgery to remove his first rib and a portion of his neck muscle soon followed, he finally started throwing pain-free again, and in short order he returned to pro ball, suited up for Canada in last fall’s World Baseball Classic qualifier, joined the Toronto Blue Jays for a surprise stint right after, and is now gearing up to pitch Friday’s tournament opener against Italy.
The odyssey is so outlandish it’s almost impossible to believe.
“It was a whirlwind,” says Hill, showing off a gift for understatement. “This is the best I’ve felt physically since ’07, it’s almost strange in the sense of now I don’t have to worry about how is my arm going to feel, can I throw the next day, all that kind of stuff. “Now my main focus is actually how I’m going to pitch. The past four, five years it was more can I pitch physically. It’s a nice adjustment.”
That it is, one certainly well earned.
A sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft by the Montreal Expos, the native of Georgetown, Ont., was a rising prospect in 2004 when he made his debut for Nos Amours and picked up his first career win in the final all-Canadian interleague contest, a 6-4 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
His right elbow ligament was already torn when he decided to pitch for Canada in Athens, and his outing against Cuba was as gutsy as they come. Manager Ernie Whitt had to pull him from the game with a 3-2 lead after six innings because of the restrictions placed on him by the Expos, and the Cubans rallied with six runs in the eighth to an 8-5 win, secured when Kevin Nicholson’s potential game-tying three-run blast in ninth was caught against the wall in left for the final out.
After the surgery, Hill’s longest stretch in the big-leagues came in 2007 with the Washington Nationals, when he went 4-5 in 16 starts with a 3.42 ERA. Surgery cut that year short, bled into a rocky ’08, and a fresh start the next year with the San Diego Padres ended quickly with more elbow pain.
The Blue Jays rolled the dice on him in 2010 but again he was failed by the arm, despite a four-start stint in the majors at the end of the year, and then he sat out ’11, only suiting up for Canada in the fall and helping the national squad win Pan American Games gold and IBAF World Cup bronze.
Still, with the pain lingering, Hill ended up wondering if it was time to walk away until the visit to the Rays doctor turned everything around once again.
He started the 2012 season with the York Revolution of the independent Atlantic League, signed with the Blue Jays on June 18 and posted a 9-2 record with a 4.39 ERA in 15 games for triple-A Las Vegas in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
In September he threw 5.2 innings for Canada in an 11-1 win over Britain at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Germany, flew home for a wedding afterwards, and then got a surprise phone call from the Blue Jays asking him to join them in Baltimore.
He hustled over, grabbing an old glove from his parents’ basement and borrowing some cleats since his gear was still with the national team.
“It was great but it was completely unexpected, 99 per cent of Team Canada would have said the same thing, they were expecting me to fly back to Germany and then they were hearing all of a sudden I’m pitching against the Yankees, it’s like, what the heck is going on here?” says Hill. “So it was a whirlwind, I didn’t have my equipment or any of that kind of stuff, but it was nice to get back there, at least get my foot in the door and set myself up for this year, hopefully.”
Hill made just one appearance for the Blue Jays, logging three shutout innings of relief Sept. 29 to pick up his first big-league win since Sept. 23, 2010 in a 3-2 victory over the Yankees.
“It’s one thing when they’re hearing reports from triple-A, where I was all season, it’s another when they see you in person and see what you can do,” Hill says. “I still have a lot to prove in terms of re-establishing myself after all the injuries, but it was a huge step in the right direction, giving me that jump-start.”
Where that takes him from here is an open question, one he’s happy to simply have the opportunity to answer. Hill signed a minor-league deal with the Detroit Tigers during the off-season and is a depth arm for the AL Central champions.
And Friday against Italy, he’ll be pitching in one of his most meaningful games since semi-final against Cuba at the 2004 Olympics.
“I had just gotten called up to the big-leagues but essentially I hadn’t experienced a whole lot in the baseball world at that point, at the age, experience level and situation, that to me was a huge deal,” Hill says of that start. “Emotionally, mentally, physically, all that kind of stuff, it was a grind and it was a thrill. This to me, now with where I’ve been, it’s more I want to put my best foot forward and I don’t think I’ll be nervous or anything like that. I’ve been there done that in certain aspects.
“As you get older, you know how to handle yourself in certain situations, pressure, nerves, all that kind of stuff. Athens was more reel myself in and figure out, ‘OK, this is a big stage, how do I adjust, how do I do this?’ This is a big event, but having done what I’ve done in the past with the national team, this will be more settle in after the first inning and roll.”
The Canadians, looking to leave the 2009 Classic loss to Italy in the past, are counting on it.