By Andrew Johnson
Hill, the Detroit Tigers’ 2014 first-round draft pick, has been out of action since May 7, when he collided with the center field fence and went on the disabled list.
But he returned with an exclamation point on Thursday with a hit, two stolen bases and two runs in the Whitecaps’ 7-1 victory over the Bowling Green Hot Rods in front of 6,516 fans at Fifth Third Ballpark.
The Whitecaps wrapped up their seven-game home stand with a 5-2 record and are now 20-17 on the season. They’re a half game behind third-place Bowling Green and three games behind first-place Lake County.
Hill didn’t take long to get the offense going on Thursday when he led off the bottom of the first with a single to left field.
Two pitches later he stole second base, then scored on a Will Allen double to give West Michigan a 1-0 lead.
Hill led off the bottom of the fifth by reaching base after taking a fastball to the wrist. He stole second again, then advanced to third when the throw to second got away from the defender covering the bag.
Hill scored on a Will Maddox bloop single to left, giving the Whitecaps a 2-0 lead.
West Michigan added three runs in the sixth when David Gonzales drew a bases-loaded walk to score Leo Laffita and Maddox delivered a two-run single to left.
The Whitecaps extended their lead to 7-0 in the seventh inning when Shane Zeile scored on a Steven Fuentes sacrifice fly and Laffita scored on a Cam Gibson single up the middle.
Bowling Green got its only run on a homer by Kevin Padlo in the top of the eighth inning.
The seven runs were more than enough for Whitecaps starting pitcher Matt Hall, who collected the win by tossing 6 2/3 innings without giving up a run. He scattered six hits, struck out seven and walked two.
Hall improved to 5-0 on the season and lowered his earned run average to a miniscule 0.69.
“The pitching has been pretty good, our starters are going deeper into games and our bullpen’s been solid,” said Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham, whose team has won three out of its last four games. “We’re in every game and we’ve been coming out on top of them.”
Graham said Hill’s return added a valuable dimension to the lineup.
“He brings speed to the team as you saw today with two stolen bases, and he scored both times,” the manager said. “He helps put pressure on the pitcher, which gives the batter better pitches to hit. He did a good job today and it’s good to have him back.”
Hill, who also battled injuries last season, said he was more than ready to get back in action.
“It was great, I was chomping at the bit to get back and start helping the team again,” he said.
While everyone in the Whitecaps dugout was probably holding their breaths when Hill was hit by the pitch in the fifth inning, he said after the game that he was fine.
“It just hurt a lot,” he said. “After I walked down to first base with the trainer, and he thought it was fine, it didn’t hurt as much.”
Maddox also had a big day for West Michigan, finishing with two hits and three RBIs, while Laffita added a pair of hits.
The Whitecaps will travel to Fort Wayne on Friday, when Detroit Tigers pitcher Shane Greene will join the team for a rehab start at 7:05 p.m.