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Rich Hill's comeback brings him to Game 5 of NLDS

Rich Hill's comeback brings him to Game 5 of NLDS
The Dodgers' Rich Hill walks off of the field in the fifth inning against the Nationals on Oct. 9, 2016. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Rich Hill's rollercoaster ride from the Cubs to the Independent League and back to the majors again has led the left-hander to tonight's Game 5 matchup between the Dodgers and the Nationals at National Park.

Hill is expected to start against Max Scherzer in the do-or-die game that will send the winner to the NLCS to face the Cubs.

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It's the biggest moment in Hill's career, and one that he's openly embraced.

"If you're not ready for it, you're in the wrong spot," he said.

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The Nationals haven't won a playoff series since the franchise moved from Montreal. The last time a team in Washington won a title was in 1924, when they beat the New York Giants in a seven-game series.

If Washington wins, it will begin the Dusty Baker vs. the Cubs showdown, also featuring the Nats. Baker told me in May he expected to see the Cubs at some point in October.

But if the Dodgers win, Hill will get a chance to return to Wrigley Field and try to end the Cubs' dream season, a possibility we discussed during the Cubs trip to L.A. in August.

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"It'd be intense for sure," he said. "It'd be great."

A fourth-round pick out of Michigan in 2002, Hill came up with the Cubs in 2005 and wore the unconventional No. 53. His first big moment in the spotlight was in 2006 when he was demoted to Triple-A after criticizing A.J. Pierzynski as "gutless" for the homeplate collision that led to Michael Barrett punching the Sox catcher.

"I think it was pretty gutless on their part -- him hitting Michael when he didn't even have the ball," Hill said that day. "That's not how you play the game. If he had the ball and he hits him, that's fine, that's how you play it. But you don't go around just running over catchers. What if he injured him and he didn't have the ball? That's not the way you play the game. ... It was pathetic."

Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was livid when he heard about Hill's remark.

"Tell that Triple-A [bleep] to shut the [bleep] up," Guillen said. "Tell him to start throwing some strikes or he's going to get Dusty fired."

Hill was demoted the next day. Baker would be let go after his contract ran out at the end of the season. But after the incident, he said he spoke to him about ripping Pierzynski.

"The thing about it is sometimes a young man speaks more than he listens, which is a big part of the problem," Baker said.

Hill eventually returned to the Cubs in '06, then went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 2007, when new manager Lou Piniella named him as his the third playoff starter behind Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly. He started Game 3 of the 2007 NLDS against the Diamondbacks with the Cubs trailing in the series 2-0.

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On an unusually hot afternoon at Wrigley, Hill struggled in the first inning and never recovered.

Chris Young hit the first pitch into the bleachers for a home run, and Justin Upton later homered to make it 2-0. Hill wound up allowing three runs on six hits over three innings, before being replaced by Michael Wuertz. The Cubs lost 5-1 and were swept in the series.

"Things just didn't fall our way," Hill recalled. "Looking back on it, we may have had the better team. Really goes to show you, like, how important the first game is of a division series, or any series in a playoffs, just to get off on the right foot. Unfortunately it just didn't work out."

Hill lost Game 2 of this NLDS, serving up a three-run home run to Jose Lobaton and lasting 4 1/3 innings.

Hill also has a connection with Cubs president Theo Epstein, who signed him as a free agent in Boston on June 30, 2010, and had him pitch out of the bullpen for the Red Sox, reviving his career.

"When I look back on it obviously I'm extremely thankful for the opportunity, to get that experience to prove myself as a reliever, especially coming up with the team you grew up with watching as a kid, and would go to their games," Hill said. "It's something I'll always remember.

"People say 'It's such a business,' and blah, blah, blah. But for me, I feel I was fortunate enough to grow up near a major league team and go to their games and get to play for them, and I have Theo to thanks for that opportunity. He's obviously done amazing things in Boston and now in Chicago."

Hill, who often spoke about the "mental skills" part of pitching when he was with the Cubs, also had some advice for Cubs' players dealing with questions from the national media about the curse.

"Just embrace it," he said. "It is what it is."

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