Commentary

Diverging emotions for two pitchers

Rich Hill's bad luck opens door for Sox reliever Tommy Hottovy

Updated: June 3, 2011, 7:58 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- They stood maybe 10 feet apart in the Red Sox clubhouse, two left-handed pitchers whose careers were once again bisecting, but in a way neither one would have wished.

Tommy Hottovy was unable to hide the wonderment in his voice at finally making it to the big leagues at age 29, an odyssey that included waiting tables in a Fort Myers pizza joint. His phone call had awakened his pregnant wife, Andrea, back home in Kansas City. "Wake up,'' he had told the woman who had urged him not to abandon his dream even when he needed Tommy John elbow surgery and was still in Double-A. "Pinch yourself, then wake up again.''

How improbable was his presence here?

"In the back of your head,'' he said, "it's as far away as you can imagine. Heck, two months ago I go to spring training and was not guaranteed anything.''

[+] EnlargeTommy Hottovy
Scott Rovak/US Presswire"Two months ago I go to spring training and was not guaranteed anything,'' said Tommy Hottovy on his improbable rise to the Boston bullpen.

Rich Hill's voice, meanwhile, remained even, but his eyes revealed the disappointment that comes with learning that his left elbow had betrayed him. The sickening pop he had heard two nights earlier was the sound of his ulnar collateral ligament tearing apart, a three-quarters tear, he said, that almost certainly would require the same surgery Hottovy had undergone three years earlier.

"The frustrating part,'' said the Milton native and Southie resident who had been living out a dream of his own, pitching for his hometown team, "is you find a niche for yourself in the bullpen, then to have something happen that is probably season-ending, that's something tough to swallow.''

Hottovy was here because Hill cannot be. A year ago, they were brothers in arms, both learning how to throw sidearm in an effort to remain gainfully employed. Hottovy was never the same after he had Tommy John surgery, never regained the life on his fastball, so throwing side-armed was all about survival. So, too, for Hill, and they had urged each other on, both last summer in Pawtucket and then again this spring in Fort Myers.

Hill had known success in the big leagues, with the Chicago Cubs, then hurt his shoulder, fought a losing battle with his control, then reinvented himself as a sidewinder with considerable success. He had been by far Boston's most successful left-handed reliever this season, not giving up an earned run in nine appearances spanning eight innings. Opposing batters were hitting .115 (3 for 26) against him. He had struck out 12 while walking just 3.

Then on Wednesday, while pitching to White Sox slugger Adam Dunn in the seventh inning, Hill had heard a pop in his elbow while throwing ball four.

"I had hoped it was just scar tissue,'' Hill said. "I didn't feel the common symptoms, like tingling down the arm, the numbness.''

But then came the MRI that showed the tear, and the word from Sox medical director Thomas Gill recommending surgery, a procedure that typically requires at least a year to return from. Hill intends to go through the process of getting a second opinion, probably at the beginning of next week, but he understands that he's not likely to hear anything different.

Hottovy, meanwhile, had begun the season in Double-A Portland, the place where he had spent five previous seasons since the Sox drafted him in 2004. Five seasons on a Double-A plateau is not the typical way to make it to the big leagues, especially when you're about to turn 27 and learn that you need Tommy John, as Hottovy did in 2008. It was then he made another call to Andrea Hottovy.

"Is this something we want to do?'' he said he asked her. "I wasn't going to be alone on this.''

Her response?

"She said, 'You owe it to yourself to see where you can go healthy,''' he said. "From that moment on, there was no looking back. Just flash-forward, keep battling and hoping to be in the right place at the right time.''

That place and time came Friday, at a time and place that could not have been worse for Rich Hill.

But in an extraordinary display of grace, Hill volunteered how much this moment must mean to Tommy Hottovy.

"For Tommy Hottovy to be up here has to be a pretty exciting time for him,'' Hill said. "He has great stuff. I played with him last year, watched him in spring training. He's very effective out of the bullpen.''

When told of Hill's comments, Hottovy was not surprised. "We went through the sidearm thing together last year,'' he said. "He pulled for me, I pulled for him. He's an unbelievable guy.''

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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