Rich Hill was a different man the last time he saw Washington Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton. It was three years ago. Hill was a reliever, clawing at the fringes of the sport, when Lobaton recorded his third hit in three at-bats against him. The two men would not meet again until Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.
During the intervening years, Hill rebuilt himself into a left-handed artist, a pitcher the Dodgers were willing to mortgage multiple prospects to acquire this summer, a pitcher the team decided to trust for Game 2 of the National League division series. He morphed from a punching bag into a pillar.
But a transformation cannot override the danger of a hanging curveball.
In the fourth inning of a 5-2 loss, Hill watched his primary pitch float toward the plate. Lobaton delivered a hit far more concussive than his first three against Hill. The three-run homer handed the Nationals the lead, blunted the momentum of the Dodgers and heightened the scrutiny on an offense that stranded 12 runners. One pitch, in essence, changed everything.
"It did," Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. "It did."
Up two runs when the ball left Hill's hand, the Dodgers could not recover, and flew back to Los Angeles with the series tied. There is little time to mourn. Kenta Maeda will throw Game 3's first pitch at 1:08 p.m., with the schedule compacted by Saturday's rainout, as the Dodgers confront a man capable of exploiting their offensive Achilles' heel: Gio Gonzalez, a left-handed pitcher.
After mesmerizing the Nationals for three innings, Hill hung that curveball in the fourth and could not finish the fifth. Washington taxed him for four runs. Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy supplied insurance with an RBI single off Hill in the fifth and another in the seventh against reliever Grant Dayton. Hill shackled the loss across his own shoulders.
"We're tied in this series now because I didn't execute," Hill said. "For me, it's extremely disappointing."
But the responsibility could be spread around. The offense responded to the deficit with capitulation, batting one for nine with runners in scoring position. On three occasions in the first five innings, the team came up empty after loading the bases. The group supplied zero hits against the Nationals' mid-game relief contingent of Marc Rzepczynski, Sammy Solis, Blake Treinen and Oliver Perez.
Both Roberts and a few of his players mentioned the shadows creeping across the ballpark. The setting sun does complicate the task of hitting. The loss still counts.
"No one said it was going to be easy," Roberts said.
The rain expected to ruin Saturday evening never materialized. But wind whipped through the ballpark on Sunday. Gusts swirled as the Dodgers took batting practice as the team brimmed with optimism about the prospect of a two-game lead.
The wind could not keep Corey Seager in the park. On his second pitch of the game, Nationals starter Tanner Roark flung a fastball over Seager's head. Seager ducked before the baseball connected. He was unsure if the cause was Roark's skittishness or an attempt at intimidation.
"It was more just shock," Seager said. "You're never used to it coming over your head."
Seager waited to three pitches to answer. Forced to throw a 3-0 strike, Roark laid a fastball down the middle. Seager powered it over the fence in right-center field.
Hill breezed through the first inning, striking out the side, and dodged danger in the second. He loaded the bases by hitting struggling shortstop Danny Espinosa in the hand, but recovered to induce Lobaton to hit into a 1-2-3 double play.
Another miscue from Lobaton aided the Dodgers in the third, and extended his audition to be the day's goat, not its hero. Josh Reddick provided the team's only hit with runners in scoring position, a single to right field with Justin Turner at second base. The throw from outfielder Bryce Harper beat Turner to the plate, but Lobaton lost the ball trying to make the tag.
The start looked audacious. Except the Dodgers stumbled when Roark struggled. After the second run, a walk by Joc Pederson loaded the bases. Yasmani Grandal rolled a low curveball into a 4-6-3 double play, and Roark ducked the knockout blow. "We stressed him, and we had an opportunity to put him away early," Roberts said.
Hill rolled into the fourth with seven strikeouts. The spell soon broke. Murphy took a leadoff walk before Hill recorded two outs. Then he clipped Espinosa in the foot with a cutter. There were two on for Lobaton, who was only part of the lineup because of a season-ending knee injury to All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos.
"I don't think anybody thought that was the guy who was going to hurt us," Reddick said.
In the next breath, Reddick lamented, anyone can be that guy in October.
Hill fed Lobaton a 1-1 bender at the belt. It was, in Grandal's eyes, "a bad pitch to the part of the zone he hits." Lobaton deposited it in the Dodgers' bullpen, with enough force to traverse the wind, awakening the crowd in the process. He climbed his dugout steps for a curtain call.
The response from the Dodgers was tepid. The homer forced the team to lament missed opportunities earlier in the day. There would not be many more. Grandal struck out again with the bases loaded in the fifth. Howie Kendrick lined out to end the threat. The Dodgers never challenged again.
Through five innings, the team left nine men on the bases. The number hung on the scoreboard in right field, taunting them from afar. It would only increase. The number of runs would not. The offense could not alleviate Hill's guilt.
"I didn't execute," Hill said. "It falls solely on me."