The last time the Angels threw Ken Hill into a pennant race, the right-hander put so much pressure on himself to be the team's stopper he wound up being a shaky starter, going 1-3 with a 6.17 earned-run average last August before coming on strong in September (2-1, 1.43).
Hill will jump back into the pressure cooker tonight when he comes off the disabled list to pitch against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park, his first major league start since June 15 surgery to remove bone chips and shave down bone spurs in his elbow.
But unlike 1997, when Hill felt burdened by the loss of ace Chuck Finley to injury and pressured to carry a patchwork rotation being held together by knuckleballer Dennis Springer, Hill believes he'll be able to blend in this summer.
"We have guys pitching better, and that makes it a lot easier," Hill said. "Chuck is healthy, Jack McDowell is healthy, Omar [Olivares] and [Steve] Sparks are throwing well. Last year when Chuck went down, it was like every one of my starts became more important."
Still, every one of Hill's starts will be important, because the Angels are locked in a heated race with the Texas Rangers for the American League West title.
And if Hill can come back strong, he could be just the player to keep the Angels ahead of the Rangers, who made several significant moves before the July 31 trading deadline but remain in second place.
"Remember all those trades we talked about in July?" Manager Terry Collins said. "We could not have gotten a guy of Ken Hill's caliber, so [his return] will be huge for us. The reason he wanted to have that surgery back in June is he wanted to help the team in September."
How impressed was Collins with Darin Erstad's ninth-inning at-bat in the second game of Wednesday night's doubleheader, when Erstad fouled off five two-strike pitches from closer Mariano Rivera before driving a game-tying, RBI single to right field?
"They ought to make a videotape of that at-bat and send it to every team in baseball," Collins said. "That's how you win games. That's how you battle. That's how you fight off fringe pitches and give yourself a chance."
The player who is optioned to the minor leagues to make room for Hill today probably will remain with the Angels through the weekend and be recalled Tuesday when teams can expand their rosters to 40. Among those expected to be added next week are pitchers Mike Holtz and Jason Dickson and infielders Justin Baughman and Chris Pritchett. . . . The Angels transferred Dave Hollins to the 60-day disabled list.
* Opponent--Boston Red Sox, three games
* Site--Fenway Park, Boston
* Today--4 p.m.
* TV--Channel 9 today and Sunday
* Radio--KRLA (1110), XPRS (1090)
* Records--Angels 74-61, Red Sox 78-53
* 1998 record vs. Red Sox--4-4
ANGELS' KEN HILL
(8-5, 5.15 ERA)
RED SOX'S STEVE AVERY
(9-5, 5.16 ERA)
* Update--After five games in New York, the Angels will again square off against a potential playoff opponent. Although the Red Sox aren't being compared to the greatest teams in baseball history, they have had a splendid season and have all but locked up the wild-card berth on the strength of a superb rotation led by Pedro Martinez, an explosive offense led by shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (.326, 27 homers, 102 RBIs) and first baseman Mo Vaughn (.332, 33 homers, 91 RBIs), and a closer (Tom Gordon) who has converted 38 of 39 save opportunities.
Saturday, 2 p.m.--Jack McDowell (3-2, 3.86) vs. Pedro Martinez (17-4, 2.73).
Sunday, 10 a.m.--Omar Olivares (7-8, 4.17) vs. Tim Wakefield (15-5, 4.19).