Hillenbrand entered yesterday batting .342 with five home runs and 20 RBIs. Two of those home runs came against the Orioles on April 7 at Camden Yards. He was back this week and had another productive series, going 4-for-13 with two doubles and three runs scored.
"He knows exactly what he wants to do at the plate, and he's tough," said Red Sox hitting coach Dwight Evans. "He's not getting himself out, and I thought he got himself out quite a bit last year. Now, he's making the pitchers work."
As a rookie last season, Hillenbrand went 150 at-bats before he drew his first walk. Much like Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons this season, Hillenbrand was among the league leaders in fewest pitches per plate appearance.
This year, he has seven walks and 79 at-bats.
"I've got a better approach at the plate," Hillenbrand said. "The more pitches I see now, the better chance I give myself to gauge the pitches and get better involved in the at-bat."
The Red Sox drafted Hillenbrand in the 10th round as a shortstop in 1996, and he eventually spent time at first base and catcher. No one seemed to have a clue where to put him until former Boston manager Jimy Williams entrenched him at third base last year.
That made all the difference. Hillenbrand committed 18 errors and hit just .263 with 12 home runs, but he became more and more comfortable every day.
"He's always been a hard worker physically, and now he's working hard mentally," Evans said. "It's a real pleasure working with somebody like that."
Rays of hope
Tampa Bay was sitting one game under .500 on Wednesday, at 9-10. This might not sound like much, but it was nice for a team that was 5-14 a year ago and entered the All-Star break 27-61.
Since that time, the Devil Rays are 44-51 (through Friday) and one of their leaders has been Randy Winn, who entered yesterday batting .322 with a team-leading 28 hits and 16 RBIs.
"This is a team game," Winn told the Tampa Tribune. "There is not going to be one person to carry you all season. The key thing is, everybody has got to keep improving. We've definitely got the talent in this room. We just need more experience and to play more together."
Relief in Toronto
Toronto fans found themselves feeling the contraction blues last week after their parent company dropped hints that the team's perilous financial state might force them to seek "other alternatives."
Alan Horn, chief financial officer for Rogers Communications Inc., which owns the Blue Jays, told financial analysts, "Clearly, from a financial perspective, injecting $55 million into the Toronto Blue Jays is not something that this company is wanting to do on a continuing basis. If it looks as if it can't be fixed, for whatever reason, then we will look at other alternatives."
This led to widespread speculation that the Blue Jays would either be resold or contracted. But Robert DuPuy, second to commissioner Bud Selig, eased some of those concerns. "Toronto has never," he said, "been a candidate for contraction."
Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has blown two saves this month, but the most surprising aspect of his season has been the success of opposing left-handed hitters. Lefties are batting .235 against him, 55 points higher than in the past.
Perhaps this is proof Rivera's cut fastball, which bears in on lefties, isn't as devastating as it used to be.
"I'm only human," Rivera told The Record of Hackensack, N.J.
Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.