CHICAGO - Whenever Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine stopped by Fenway Park this winter, he almost invariably ran into Rich Hill.
The lefthanded reliever was at the park three or four days a week working with rehabilitation coordinator Mike Reinold. Hill had Tommy John elbow surgery June 9 and was determined to come back as quickly as he could.
“Most every day I was there, I think I saw him,’’ Valentine said. “I started resisting watching him play catch because he looked so good. The plan wasn’t really for April.’’
But Hill was activated on Friday, his return to the majors coming just 10 months and 18 days after surgery. In most cases, pitchers need at least a year to return.
“I didn’t really know at the time how long it was going to take with the rehab process,’’ Hill said before the Red Sox beat the White Sox, 10-3. “As soon as you start throwing and you start to feel like stuff is coming along and you get into the long toss part of your program, you know things are going to go pretty smoothly.’’
The 32-year-old Hill could have a prominent role in the bullpen. Since being signed as a minor league free agent in 2010, he has appeared in 15 games for the Red Sox and thrown 12 scoreless innings.
Hill prepared for his return by appearing in eight minor league games, throwing nine innings. He allowed two runs on five hits with two walks and 18 strikeouts.
Hill’s sidearm motion makes him especially effective against lefthanded batters, who were 1 for 14 against him last season. But he feels he can be more than just a specialist.
Righthanded batters were 4 for 25 against Hill during his minor league stint, and given the state of the unsettled Red Sox bullpen, Hill could pitch complete innings instead of coming in to face a batter or two.
“I feel like the ball’s coming out better, I do. I feel like it’s coming out with more life,’’ Hill said. “It just seems like everything’s put together better . . . I know I can get righties and lefties out.’’
As part of his rehab, Hill strengthened his shoulder and got himself in better shape overall under the guidance of John Pallof, a therapist who works for Red Sox strength and conditioning consultant Mike Boyle.
As a result, Hill’s fastball, which averaged 89 miles per hour last season, is at 90 or 91 now. Hill joked that he hoped to pitch until his late 40s, like Jamie Moyer, with his rebuilt arm.
Valentine is glad he finally gets to watch Hill pitch in games.
“He’s worked so hard, stayed with the program, religious with his work ethic,’’ the manager said. “It’s a credit to a plan that was followed and a guy who was able to follow the plan.’’
Lefthander Justin Thomas was optioned to Triple A Pawtucket to make room for Hill on the roster. Thomas appeared in seven games, allowing four runs on 10 hits, two walks, and a hit batter in 4 2/3 innings.
The Red Sox will honor Tim Wakefield May 15 before an afternoon game against the Mariners. The “Thanks, Wake Day’’ ceremonies will begin at approximately 3:30 p.m.
Wakefield retired in February after a 19-year career in the majors, the last 17 with the Sox. The Sox have not set a day when they will honor Jason Varitek.
As the Red Sox look for reliable relievers, 25-year-old Junichi Tazawa is making an impression on Valentine.
Tazawa pitched three shutout innings against the White Sox on Thursday for his first career save. He allowed two hits and struck out four. He has not allowed a run in six innings since being called up April 18.
“I’m commanding my fastball and offspeed pitches, keeping them down,’’ Tazawa said through interpreter Masai Takahashi.
Tazawa had elbow surgery and missed the 2010 season. He got in three games amid the rubble of last September before the decision was made to use him exclusively as a reliever.
Matsuzaka in Maine
Daisuke Matsuzaka will make the second start of his minor league rehabilitation assignment Saturday afternoon for Double A Portland against Reading. Matsuzaka went four innings for Single A Salem on Monday. Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte is scheduled to pitch for Trenton at Hadlock Field on Monday . . . Lefthander Andrew Miller has made nine minor league appearances in his rehab assignment, which can run through May 7. He has allowed six hits over 9 1/3 innings and struck out 18, but has walked 11. Friday against Columbus, he struck out the side in the seventh - but also walked a man and gave up a two-run homer to Matt LaPorta. “He feels he’s close, we feel he’s close. A little more consistency,’’ Valentine said . . . Carl Crawford, who has been shut down because of a partially torn ligament in his left elbow, will rejoin the team in Boston next week . . . Jacoby Ellsbury is making progress with his partially dislocated right shoulder, according to Valentine. “More and more, every day he’s moving along in the range motion and strength,’’ the manager said.