Rich Hill is 36 years old. He had one decent full season as a starter, almost a decade ago as a Cub. He was a fourth-round pick of Chicago way back in 2002, and should have been better than he was. After 7 major league teams, a stint as a 35-year-old in Independent Ball and a completely remade pitching arsenal, Hill is one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Hill is the closest thing to a modern-day Jack Morris (see: The Rookie movie) story as you’ll get. He’s dealt with blisters on his pitching hand for much of the last two months, but he has yet to allow a run in 19 innings as a Dodger. Those are important innings for an injury-ravaged rotation in the heat of a pennant race.
And, 7 innings into a start in Miami on Saturday, Hill’s long path back to prominence was at its peak. He was flawless. Perfect.
Hill was living every baseball player’s dream: six outs from absolute perfection on the mound. What would have been his magnum opus as a player, regardless of any future individual achievements. It’s what every pitcher aches for.
Perfection; 27 batters up, 27 batters down. Never going into the stretch, because you’re too good that day to have to. Like bowling a 300 or acing a hole in golf, tens of thousands try and very few achieve. There is nothing more impressive in sports than hurling 9 consecutive innings of untouched baseballs.
Of all people, it was Hill who walked off the mound in the 7th inning. More than a decade of frustration behind him. Two innings of glory ahead of him.
And then, he was done. He threw 89 perfect pitches, and his reward was a seat on the bench. Manager Dave Roberts, likely with some kind of influence from the front office, pulled the plug on Hill’s magnificent start and single-handedly shot down the veteran’s chance at immortality.
From a business standpoint, the move made sense. Again, the Dodgers have been crushed by injuries this season – especially to the starting rotation. And with an eye on October, they couldn’t afford to let one of their more promising arms fall victim to the DL with just a few weeks left to play in the regular season. As businessmen, they invested in Hill and need him as a healthy asset in the postseason.
Sometimes, glory trumps business. For the Dodgers, that rarely seems to hold true. In April, rookie Ross Stripling took a no-hitter into the 7th inning against the rival Giants in his MLB debut. He had never thrown as many pitches as he was going to have to throw to complete it. And he was in his first regular season start after Tommy John surgery.
Roberts pulled him, too. The Dodgers lost the game. It was frustrating, but it made sense. The Dodgers want the 26-year-old Stripling to be a member of their pitching staff for many more years, and they weren’t willing to sacrifice his surgically-repaired elbow for a long-shot chance at a no-hitter.
With Hill, the move was less sensible. The team held a healthy 5-0 lead, and Hill had only made those 89 beautiful pitches. Certainly, another 15 or so weren’t out of the question for a pitcher who has logged so many innings over his career.
The entire world would have been rooting for the walking, talking comeback story that is Rich Hill. Yasiel Puig had just made one of the greatest catches you’ll ever see to preserve a perfect game, and every inch of momentum favored the Dodgers and their starter.
But, from the manager came the order. From the front office, came the order: 89 pitches and 7 innings is enough. Your blisters could flare up again. Hill protested, emotionally. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot at perfection, which Hill has been working toward since the day he first stood on a mound. The argument went nowhere, though, and Joe Blanton came in for the 8th inning.
Twitter exploded. Fans booed. Hill grimaced. It was over.
Like a true veteran who has seen so many failings in this difficult game, Hill was diplomatic after Blanton, Grant Dayton and Kenley Jansen closed out the win, saying he understood why they made the move. He also mentioned that he felt fine, physically.
The artist had his paint stolen with just a few brushstrokes left to finish the masterpiece. And somehow he was okay with it, because that’s how you have to be in baseball. Still, you know that has to rip at Hill’s heart, knowing he was only six outs away from joining the ranks of the elite and going down in baseball lore as one of the most unlikely perfect-game-throwers you’ll ever see.
The pitcher wanted it. His teammates wanted it. The fans were begging for it. Hell, even Roberts desperately wanted it. But for this version of the Dodgers, it was business over pleasure. Blisters over perfection.
Hill had earned the right to see it through, but the powers that be denied him that, in favor of the bigger picture.
And if the Dodgers win the World Series, the decision will fade into oblivion…for now, a 36-year-old journeyman who deserved it more than most might never get another chance at perfection. And that is a travesty.
It is the definition of why baseball is a painful, unfair sport.