When the phone rang, a dozen heads turned in confusion. On the mound on Saturday night, Dodgers starter Rich Hill was spinning perfection. Inside the bullpen, Ross Stripling and the rest of the relievers felt perplexed when the dugout phoned after the sixth inning.
“We got the call, and we were like, ‘What could that possibly be?’” Stripling said. “And then they said something about the blister. And we were like ‘Oh [shoot].’ It sucks, man.”
On Sunday morning, a little more than 12 hours after Dave Roberts chose to remove Hill after seven spotless innings, the dejection inside the clubhouse was still apparent. Hill missed a chance to complete the 24th perfect game in baseball history. Instead he became the first man to get removed that late into a bid for perfection, after only 89 pitches.
Roberts bore the weight of his decision. He struggled to sleep on Saturday, despite the support of his front office and more than a few bottles of Presidente beer. He called his teenage son, who assured his father he was not upset with him. When Roberts came to the ballpark for Sunday’s series finale, he felt reassured about the choice.
Acquired on Aug. 1, Hill has pitched in only three games as a Dodger due to blisters on his left hand. The training staff noticed the blisters starting to reappear. With Clayton Kershaw still rebuilding arm strength, Hill is the team’s most reliable, effective pitcher. Roberts felt the team could not risk losing Hill for the playoffs.
“If it was earlier in the year, I would have let him go back out there,” Roberts said. “What we’ve done since February, to get to the point where we’re at, with 2½ weeks left in the season, it just wasn’t worth the risk. Richie is throwing as good as anyone in all of baseball. To take the chance to lose him for the postseason is irresponsible.”
The trainers inspected Hill’s hand after every inning. Hill is combating multiple blisters. One is exacerbated by curveballs. The other is provoked by fastballs. On Saturday, the fastball blister was the one showing signs of life. The staff probed the hand and noted the tenderness of the skin.
“Those are signs that the next step is a blister,” Roberts said.
Roberts considered removing Hill after the sixth inning, when Hill had thrown 75 pitches. That’s when the bullpen phone rang. Grant Dayton started to warm up. But Hill disappeared with Roberts into the tunnel leading toward the clubhouse, and pleaded his case to remain in the game.
Hill received one more inning. Yasiel Puig made a preposterous diving catch in left field to collect the third out, extending Hill’s bid at perfection and raising Roberts’ blood pressure. Hill fought to return for the eighth. He lost the argument.
After the game, Hill maintained his composure when speaking to reporters. He did not wish to speak ill of Roberts, who appears to be the favorite to be selected National League manager of the year. But his disappointment was obvious.
The next morning, Hill clambered onto a bus with his teammates and rode to Marlins Park. When he entered the clubhouse, he bumped into former Dodger Juan Pierre, who was visiting the group.
“The Real Deal, Rich Hill!” Pierre said. Pierre reminisced about watching Hill pitch as a rookie for the Cubs a decade ago. Hill has undergone countless transformations since then. He has emerged in 2016 as one of the best pitchers in baseball, when he is healthy enough to take the mound.
Hill has thrown 95 innings this season. He owns the lowest earned-run average (1.80) among pitchers who have logged 90 innings this season. He has not allowed a run as a Dodger. He befuddles opponents with his curveball. He hasn’t given up a homer since the first day of May.
“There are Dodgers fans that are really upset with me,” Roberts said. “And I get it. But true Dodgers fans understand that my job is for the organization and the team.”
Stripling has a unique perspective on the situation. On April 8, the night of his major-league debut, he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning in San Francisco. Roberts removed him after 100 pitches, citing concerns about Stripling’s health and the need to win the baseball game. Stripling underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, had just walked a batter and the team was only leading by a run.
The next morning, Stripling’s father stopped Roberts in the lobby of the team hotel and thanked the manager for protecting his son. Five months later, Stripling has tried to move past that night. But he still gets reminded about it on Twitter, or when reporters visit his locker.
“I think it kind of sucks that we’ll never know if we could have finished it,” Stripling said. “Just like Rich will never know if he could have finished it last night. That will always be there. But I don’t really like think back on it, and totally beat myself up about it.”