The suffering stretched across the face of Dave Roberts. His eyes brimmed red. His stomach roiled with discontent. He had never before experienced a win that felt like a loss, not until Saturday’s 5-0 Dodgers victory over the Miami Marlins, when he made a decision that protected Rich Hill’s health, incited Hill’s rage and invited heartache into the manager’s office.
“I’m going to lose sleep tonight,” Roberts said. “And I probably should.”
His voice was gravelly and low, unable to find joy even as hip-hop blared in the clubhouse. He suspected he will never “have to make a tougher decision” than the choice he made in Saturday’s seventh inning. Wary of exacerbating the blisters on Hill’s left hand, Roberts removed him after seven perfect innings — no hits, no walks, no men on base and only 89 pitches thrown.
The decision recalled Roberts’ call in the first week of the season to remove rookie Ross Stripling in the eighth inning of a no-hit bid in San Francisco. At the time, Roberts understood the magnitude of his choice. But he believed Stripling’s long-term health was more important than one night of glory.
The same principle applied Saturday, except magnified by the rarity of the achievement. Only 23 perfect games have been thrown. Sandy Koufax twirled the last one for the Dodgers on Sept. 9, 1965. Hill finished six outs shy, stopped by his manager, not the opposition.
“I’m a baseball nut — when do you ever get a chance to throw a perfect game?” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “It was gut-wrenching to have to see Dave go through that call.”
Unlike Stripling, Hill is not a rookie. He turned 36 this spring. But the Dodgers view him as a vital asset for October. Hill missed six weeks earlier this summer because of the blisters on his index finger. As Saturday stretched into the final innings, Roberts noted, Hill experienced “heat” that left the area “tender.”
Hill would downplay the severity of the blister after the game, but Roberts chose to anger his pitcher rather than subject him to an injury risk.
Hill received the news with fury. Roberts sat beside him in the dugout midway through the eighth. He took off his cap and told Hill his night was over. Hill swore and stomped around the sunflower seed-strewn walkway. He slammed a bat against the bench.
“I get it,” Hill said. “I’m very adamant about living in the moment. I did not want to come out of the game. But I think there’s a bigger picture here, and we all know what it is.”
That sentiment approached a consensus among other members of the team: Sadness for Hill, sympathy for Roberts and exasperation at the cruelty of their sport. Hill had crawled back from a career as a journeyman, having started in August 2015 for the Long Island Ducks, to reassemble himself as one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers. The Dodgers did not want to risk losing him for October on one night in September.
“Doc did what’s best for the team in the long run,” said Joc Pederson, who hit two of the team’s four homers to lead the offense.
The next run Hill allows as a Dodger will be his first. He spun six scoreless innings against San Francisco in his debut. He held San Diego to one hit in six innings in his next start. He topped that performance on Saturday, flummoxing the Marlins with fastballs and the shifting arm angles of his curveball for nine strikeouts.
“Not many guys have the feel that he has,” Clayton Kershaw said. “It’s hard enough to perfect one curveball at one arm angle and one speed. He’s able to mix the speeds and then mix the arm angles. Just a really confident thing to do.”
Hill exited the game after the night’s most astounding on-field moment. With two outs in the seventh, Marlins infielder Martin Prado smashed a curveball into left field. In only his second start at the position, Yasiel Puig gave chase. He sprawled across the warning track after a leaping, over-the-shoulder catch. In the process, he ruined the evening of his manager.
“There might have been a little bit of me that wouldn’t have been upset if the ball had dropped,” Roberts said.
The catch stunned Hill. He raised his arms over his head. His face remained placid. Once he reached the dugout, he walked toward the clubhouse with Roberts.
The pair spent most of the top of the eighth out of sight. When he returned, Hill grabbed his glove and pulled on a jacket. Then he removed it, complaining about the temperature. He sat on the bench and waited for Roberts’ decision.
Roberts conferred with Honeycutt and the training staff. He did the math. Hill had not thrown 90 pitches in a game since July 7, the day the blister first appeared. He had pitched in two major league games since then. He was scratched from an outing on Aug. 31 because of worries about his finger. If the blister tore, he might miss a month.
“I’m very, very sensitive to his personal achievements,” Roberts said. “I really am. But nothing should get in the way, or compromise, our team goal.”
Hill stayed reserved after the game. His disappointment was acute, but he maintained his respect for his manager.
“Dave has been incredible,” Hill said. “And I think it goes without saying that the position we’re in has a lot to do with the way he’s been able to orchestrate this team.”
When Joe Blanton took the ball in the eighth, Hill was still pacing the dugout, swiping his cap at the air, shouting into the void. He found a seat next to Kershaw later in the frame. Kershaw felt his teammate’s pain. Hill took a deep breath when Blanton gave up a two-out single to outfielder Jeff Francouer.
The Dodgers closed out the victory soon after, but Roberts could not enjoy it. He felt he made the right decision. Still it gnawed at him. On a night when Rich Hill was perfect, his manager understood why life is not.
“There’s a lot of fans in Los Angeles who are upset with me, I’m sure,” Roberts said. “But the city of Los Angeles, the Dodgers, I think, in my opinion, that was the best thing for us to win a championship.”