Aaron Hill eagerly awaits playoff debut
Former Blue Jays 2nd baseman plays key role in D-backs' pennant run
Aaron Hill uses the words "different" and "exciting" to describe his first taste of Major League Baseball’s post-season.
This weekend promises to be an even more enjoyable experience.
Last October, Hill and a golf buddy were celebrating the 50th birthday for the father of another friend when they made a last-minute decision to drive 30 minutes to AT&T Park in San Francisco to watch a World Series game between the hometown Giants and Texas Rangers.
Hill had never sat in a stadium for a playoff game.
"I know some people on both teams and thought it would be a fun game," the second baseman told CBCSports.ca over the phone in his first interview with a Toronto media outlet since the Blue Jays traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 23. "Just sitting in the stands was a whole different feeling because a lot of times I don’t even watch the post-season.
"I never stomached it very well. It’s where you want to be and I take it to heart. You play to win, obviously. It was fun to watch but I think it’ll be much better to be a part of."
The 29-year-old Hill will play in the post-season for the first time in seven seasons after he doubled and tripled in three at-bats on Sept. 23 to help the Diamondbacks clinch their fifth National League West title and first since 2007 with a 3-1 victory over the Giants.
The game also marked the 10th multi-hit performance for Hill since he arrived in Arizona. In his first 31 games with the D-backs, Hill hit .317 with a .381 on-base percentage, which dwarfed his .225, .270 totals in 104 contests with Toronto earlier this season.
Change of scenery
Could a change of scenery be the main reason for Hill’s dramatic turnaround at the plate?
"I do agree with what [Blue Jays bench coach] Don Wakamatsu said to me earlier in the year," Hill said. "He said you create your own environment. It makes a lot of sense.
"You could definitely look at my situation and say a change of scenery has worked out great. I came to a team that was winning and having a lot of fun. It’s definitely helped me relax … I'm having a blast."
Perhaps part of the reason for Hill’s strong play in Arizona is the fact his body — particularly his back and legs — has responded favourably to the change to a natural grass surface at Chase Field from the FieldTurf at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Being part of a winning atmosphere doesn’t hurt, either. For many of Hill’s teammates including closer J.J. Putz, shortstop Willie Bloomquist and infielder John McDonald, who joined Hill in the trade from Toronto, this is their first foray into baseball’s post-season.
After being the Giants, Hill and company celebrated on the pitcher’s mound and ran around Chase Field like kids before a brief stop in the clubhouse. Players quickly returned to the field to high-five fans and take an impromptu dip in the Chase Field pool behind the outfield fence.
"I was holding my daughter [Paige] and hugging my wife [Elizabeth]," Hill said, "and everybody starts taking off toward centre-field and I said, ‘I think I gotta go.’
"I figured out about halfway [where they were going]. These guys have been doing it all year. It’s fun to be a part of."
As bittersweet as Hill’s departure was from Toronto — he says he would be dumb not to entertain free-agent offers from other teams this winter — he has quickly settled in with the Diamondbacks.
First-year manager Kirk Gibson had Hill bat seventh in the order upon his arrival before moving the player to the two-hole where Hill had thrived at times in recent years with the Blue Jays.
He’s doing so again, setting the table for No. 3 hitter Justin Upton, who leads the team with 31 home runs and 88 runs batted in at age 24.
"This kid’s got amazing potential," said Hill, who had 36 homers and 108 RBIs in 2009 before dipping to 26 and 68 a year ago. "He broke a bat and hit a home run the other day. You don’t see that very often.
"It's been a treat [hitting in front of him]. I haven’t noticed anything too crazy as far as how [other teams] are pitching me."
What Hill has learned is how aggressively his new teammates play the game and how hard the Diamondbacks coaching staff has worked.
"What I have seen in the past month has been impressive," he said. "No one person is trying to do everything on their own. Every night’s a different guy who's the hero. It’s a full team effort here."
With every pitch and at-bat taking greater importance during a playoff run, Hill admitted to be a little more tired after games than in the past, but he has told Gibson that he doesn’t need any time off with the National League Division Series set to open Saturday.
Arizona could open at Philadelphia against one-time Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, at home against the Atlanta Braves or at home or on the road versus former Blue Jays teammate Shaun Marcum and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Hill said stepping into the batter’s box against Marcum "would be crazy."
"We have our reports on him and he has his reports on us," said Hill, "so it's going to be a battle of who’s making adjustments throughout the game and see what happens.
"We wish everybody luck because that’s everyone’s ultimate goal, to make the playoffs. Once you make it anything can happen."