M’s West Point grad overcomes injuries, keeps big-league dream
In 2010, lefty Nick Hill, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, had fulfilled his service requirements and could focus on baseball. What followed was two seasons lost to injuries. But this year he earned a spring training invite and still chases the dream.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. – For over an hour on Tuesday morning, manager Lloyd McClendon had the unenviable task of individually telling 11 players they had been cut from the major-league camp.
While most players are realistic enough to look around the clubhouse and know where they are in the organizational hierarchy, it’s never enjoyable hearing you aren’t good enough.
It wasn’t fun for McClendon telling them that.
“They are all tough,” McClendon said. “You are telling a young man his dream isn’t going to come to fruition at this particular time. They all work hard. They give us everything they’ve got.”
Nick Hill was one of those unlucky 11. The disappointment was real and raw. But for Hill, the fact he was in this position is an accomplishment and a sign he can still keep chasing that big-league dream.
“It’s obviously a privilege just to be here and getting the opportunity to pitch in front of those coaches and show them what I can do,” Hill said days before he was cut. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m just going to go about my business every day. I will start the season wherever they tell me. Hopefully soon I will end up in the big leagues.”
Legitimate thoughts about making the big leagues aren’t something Hill has had since 2010.
Following a solid 2009 season where he struck out 100 batters in 952 / 3 innings in 36 appearances for Class AA West Tennessee, Hill was invited to major-league spring training in 2010. It was major step to a promising career. It was going to be a big season.
Hill, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, was able to fulfill his service requirements the year before and focus on baseball.
But the season was sidetracked with a knee strain in early April that forced him to the disabled list. It required surgery to repair a torn meniscus that kept him out till June.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “It was an easy surgery. I came back and finished strong.”
A part-time starter in the past, Hill finished that season as a reliever. In 26 relief appearances, he posted a 2-0 record with one save and 2.43 ERA. In 37 innings, he struck out 30 batters.
So it wasn’t a complete loss of a season. That would come in 2011. Hill’s season was over before it started. He tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, requiring surgery on April 7.
“Again, you take the mindset, ‘Hey, no big deal. It happens to pitchers, get through it and come back stronger,’ ” he said.
So 2012 would be the year for Hill instead. With his elbow healthy, it was time fight his way back into relevance.
But the nagging pain in his left foot that he felt at times while he was rehabbing his elbow started to grow worse in the offseason.
“I felt it sometime in June, but I didn’t think it was anything serious, you get your nicks throughout the year,” he said. “I wasn’t really concerned with it.”
The day-to-day pounding made it worse. Soon each step, either walking or running, would result in waves of pain.
“I came back after Christmas and it was full blown,” he said. “I couldn’t even walk on it. It was a freak thing.”
Hill was diagnosed with a severe stress fracture. The foot never got healthy enough for him to return. He made two rehab appearances in July with the Mariners’ rookie-league team in Arizona, but the foot flared up. That was his entire 2012 season — three innings pitched.
“You have negative thoughts,” he said. “You think, ‘What’s going to happen to me next?’ I’d be lying if I said didn’t think about quitting.”
But he didn’t. He wasn’t going out that way.
“The average person would have just given up,” Mariners pitching coach Rick Waits said.
Hill is far from an average person. He would have never gotten into West Point being average. Not only was he accomplished enough to be accepted into such a prestigious place, he thrived there, earning Patriot League pitcher of the year honors three times, earning All-American accolades and graduating as a second lieutenant.
“You think about your friends and classmates and what some of them are still doing, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “It definitely puts things into perspective not just with your baseball career, but life in general. There are more things to life than throwing a baseball.”
Still, this was his life and he was going to enjoy it. Hill came back in 2013 — a 28-year-old still pitching in the Class AA ranks. He stayed healthy and had enjoyed it.
“I took the approach I was just going to have fun,” he said. “You just never know how short this game can be for you. I had fun and let the results take care of themselves.”
Hill made 42 appearances, posting a 2-3 record with 2.17 ERA and struck out 46 batters in 49 innings. He held opponents scoreless in 34 of 44 appearances. Lefties hit just .171 (12 for 70) and didn’t allow an extra-base hit to a lefty all season.
The success earned him an invite to spring training and a renewed spot with in the Mariners’ plans.
“He’s a really a left-on-left type of guy, and he can have success there,” Waits said. “Last year was a year of staying healthy, and this year is being a natural pitcher on the staff and not having to worry about getting hurt, and getting guys out.”
This year will likely start out in Class AAA Tacoma where Hill is close enough to have real big-league dreams.
Said Waits: “To come to where he’s come after what he’s been through, it tells you the character of the man.”
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373
On Twitter: @RyanDivish