Daily Herald
Sweep nice, but concern arises
Piniella says Cubs must get Hill straightened out
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Sports Writer
Published: 4/10/2008 9:38 PM | Updated: 4/10/2008 10:42 PM

PITTSBURGH -- When the Cubs left spring training, it was pretty clear Rich Hill was not one of their best starting pitchers, but Jon Lieber was.

However, Hill kept his spot in the rotation, and Lieber was sent to the bullpen.

Lieber bailed out Hill big time Thursday night, coming on in relief of the wild Hill and holding the Pittsburgh Pirates at bay until the Cubs' offense could get going.

Cubs batters finally got to Pirates pitcher Matt Morris, and the result was a 7-3 victory and a sweep of this three-game series.

"He bailed us out, saved the night for us," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella, whose team has won five straight and is 6-3.

Catcher Geovany Soto led the offense with 4 hits, including 2 doubles and a 2-run homer in the Cubs' 5-run sixth inning.

As important as the victory was for the Cubs, Hill's struggles have to concern them. He struggled with his command almost all of spring training before pitching creditably in the Cubs' 6-4 loss to the Astros last Friday.

But on Thursday, he lasted only 3 innings, walking four and throwing 38 of his 72 pitches for balls.

"We've got to get that straightened out," Piniella said. "I thought in the first inning, he was aiming the ball. I don't think he was throwing it. I asked him after the end of the first inning just to go out there and cut it loose and throw the darn thing. He was a little better."

Might Piniella and pitching coach Larry Rothschild move Hill to the bullpen to let him work out the command issues?

"That's a good question," Piniella said. "I'm going to sit down and talk with our pitching coach about that. I want what's best for Hill."

The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, but Hill threw 30 pitches (13 strikes) in the bottom half, when the Pirates scored three times. After Hill walked No. 3 hitter Jason Bay, Piniella had Lieber warming up.

"I just think it's going out there and letting the ball go consistently as many times as I can," Hill said. "That was the issue in the first inning. I threw the ball well in the bullpen and came out the second inning and threw the ball better. The third inning, I threw the ball better than I did in the first inning.

"That's no indication of who I am as a pitcher, but it's just something that I've got to go through. It's over. I'm just looking forward to the next start."

Lieber (2-1), who has not given up an earned run over 9½ innings this year, shut the Pirates down for 4½.

The offense scored a run in the fifth before exploding against Morris in the sixth with 5 runs. Soto hit a booming, 2-run homer to center after Kosuke Fukudome opened with a walk. Mike Fontenot later hit his first homer of the year, a 2-run homer to right. Soto came within a triple of the cycle.

"In spring training, I went through a little groove where I couldn't get really get my timing on there," he said. "I've been hitting the ball pretty good."

Cubs 7, Pirates 3

At the plate: Catcher Geovany Soto enjoyed his second career 4-hit game, with a single, 2 doubles and a 2-run homer. Mike Fontenot, getting a start at second base, hit his first homer of the year. Alfonso Soriano was 2-for-5 with 2 runs.

On the mound: Lefty Rich Hill was all over the place, throwing 72 pitches, only 34 strikes in 3 innings. Hill gave up 3 hits and 3 runs while walking four and striking out three. Jon Lieber (0.00 ERA) bailed Hill out, working 4 1/3 innings and giving up no runs. Bob Howry and Kerry Wood finished.

-- Bruce Miles