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by Ryan Gilbert

In his third stint with the Cyclones, lefthander Chris Hilliard, is 2-0 with a 0.87 ERA through two starts. Hilliard’s first win of 2011, which came on June 20, broke the franchise record for career wins. Hilliard, who as of June 25th has 12 wins as a Cyclone, ended the 2010 season with 10 career wins, leaving him tied with the franchise mark. “I’m real happy to be able to come back this year and get the chance to break [the record] and not just be tied for it,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard, who appeared in three games for Brooklyn in 2009 before leading the Cyclones in wins (9) in 2010, said that he was “a little upset” during spring training when he learned that he was injured and would report as he worked himself back into shape on the mound. However, he was “excited” when he found out he would be playing in Brooklyn. “Not many people, especially in Single-A, get to play in front of 8,000-9,000 fans every home game,” Chris said. “Brooklyn is by far the best place I’ve played, even though I’ve played at Savannah and St. Lucie. As far as fan support, Brooklyn is by far the best place.”

Hilliard believes that he is the same pitcher as last year, but since his velocity is up, he’s able to pitch inside more effectively. Because of a fatigued arm, Hilliard’s fastball was sitting at 84-85 mph last season, but according to him, radar readings have been higher in 2011. “Last year, I was a pitcher that would locate away. I hardly ever came inside on any batters because I couldn’t get away with it. This year, I’ve pitched inside on a lot of batters since I’m throwing harder.”

Since he began his time in Brooklyn, Hilliard has worked very well with his coaches. Rick Tomlin, Mets minor league pitching coordinator, helped Hilliard develop his changeup when he served as Cyclones pitching coach from 2009-2010. “The changeup is the best pitch I have,” Chris said. “Coach Tomlin helped me develop it and get it to where I want it to be.” Tomlin was in Brooklyn when the team first arrived and will be returning to MCU Park later this summer to evaluate the Cyclones pitching staff.

New Cyclones pitching coach, Frank Viola, has helped him out with “a lot of different small things that you don’t really think about when you’re on the mound,” according to Chris. One particular area Coach Viola has assisted Hilliard with is tempo. “Sometimes I get a little ahead of myself and he keeps me from rushing,” Chris said about Viola.

Hilliard is also gelling with head coach Rich Donnelly. “He’s a really good coach and I’m actually glad I was able to play for him this year,” Chris said.

Although the Cyclones don’t have the power-hitters that they did in their 51-win 2010 season, Hilliard believes that this team can achieve more success. “I honestly think we can be better than last year,” Chris claims. “We’re making up for the power with small-ball – bunting and hit-and-runs. We have some great pitchers here this year, too.”

Last season’s team was 30-8 at home and had a New York-Penn League best 51-24 record. However, the Cyclones were bested by the Tri-City ValleyCats in the championship series, leaving the team disappointed that it couldn’t put a championship ring on their fingers. “That’s what I want – that ring,” Chris said. “I missed out on it last year, so I would love to stay here and get a ring this year.” With 12 career wins as a Cyclone thus far in the 2011 season, Hilliard is on pace to shatter the previous career wins record and remain in the Brooklyn record books for years to come.

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