Rich Hill's first major-league start Monday could mark a changing of the guard in the Cubs' rotation.
Called up from Triple-A Iowa and inserted in Kerry Wood's spot, the 25-year-old left-hander had an adventurous time in the Cubs' 3-2 comeback victory over San Francisco on a sultry, rain-splashed night at Wrigley Field.
Hill allowed two runs in five innings, struck out five, collected his first major-league hit and made his first blooper reel highlight when he tripped over third base while rounding the bag on Todd Walker's third-inning single.
"You're never going to live that down," Hill said. "It's a good thing we came back and won. Now we can joke about it."
Hill's gaffe cost the Cubs an early scoring opportunity and could have came back to haunt them, but when Jeromy Burnitz's bases-loaded sacrifice fly to medium-center brought home Ronny Cedeno with the winning run in the ninth, all was forgiven.
The winning rally started with Cedeno's pinch-hit single off Tyler Walker, followed by Jerry Hairston's sacrifice. After Todd Walker singled Cedeno to third, Giants manager Felipe Alou ordered an intentional walk to Derrek Lee, loading the bases for Burnitz.
Alou then brought in lefty Jeff Fassero, his sixth reliever, to face Burnitz. Cedeno barely beat the throw from center fielder Jason Ellison on Burnitz's liner, sending Wrigley into pandemonium.
Giants ace Jason Schmidt held the Cubs to one run on six hits over seven innings, leaving with a 2-1 lead before the Cubs tied it on Neifi Perez's bases-loaded, two-out, RBI single off Walker in the eighth. Alou used five relievers in a six-batter span in the inning, bringing in the right-handed Walker, his closer, to turn around the switch-hitting Perez.
But Perez drilled Walker's first pitch to center, bringing home Burnitz to make it 2-2. The run was charged to former Cub LaTroy Hawkins, who gave up a leadoff single to Todd Walker to start the rally.
Though Hill was long gone by the end of the game, he figures to be someone who will be around for a long, long time. With Wood headed to the bullpen when he eventually returns from shoulder inflammation, Hill will get an extended opportunity to earn the fifth starter's spot.
"I'm just going to do what they ask me," Hill said. "Obviously this is a big opportunity and I want to take as much advantage of it as I can. Whatever happens, happens."
A fourth-round draft pick out of Michigan in 2002, Hill made a rapid rise through the Cubs' system this season, starting at Double-A West Tenn, then on to Iowa, with a cup of coffee with the Cubs in between. He struck out 164 in 1091/3 innings in the minors, averaging 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings with a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of better than 5-1.
With one eye on the wild-card playoff chase and another on the future, general manager Jim Hendry now has four starters in his rotation aged 25 or younger in Hill (25), Jerome Williams (23), Carlos Zambrano (24) and Mark Prior (24). Add in 39-year-old Greg Maddux, who will go for his 3,000th career strikeout Tuesday night, and the rotation continues to be the engine that can keep the Cubs alive in the bunched-up playoff race, even without Wood.