Rich Hill, after 22 pitches spent grimacing and hobbling, prepared to bat as soon as he limped into the visitors’ dugout during the Dodgers’ 6-3 win over the San Diego Padres on Tuesday. He was clearly uncomfortable in his first inning on the mound at Petco Park. His left knee, containing a sprained medial collateral ligament, bothered him. He was nearly removed before he willed his way to three outs. A second inning seemed unlikely.
But Hill, a dogged 39-year-old former journeyman, was determined to stay in the game and complete his two-inning assignment. He desperately wants to prove he can help his club in the postseason so he took his bat, put on his batting helmet, slipped on his batting gloves, and stepped out onto the on-deck circle. He was going to hit and then he was going to pitch a second inning.
Two pitches into his at-bat, Hill, whose batting stance was textbook about a century ago, sliced a line drive down the left-field line against right-hander Ronaldo Bolanos. He tottered around first base for a double. The Dodgers dugout erupted at the sight of Hill’s first extra-base hit since 2017. He had told teammates he wasn’t going to swing, but changed his mind once he entered the batter’s box.
“With Richie,” manager Dave Roberts said, “expect the unexpected.”
Hill, perhaps for his best, was left stranded at second base. He took the mound again moments later to place another exclamation point to a valiant performance by striking out the side on 12 pitches. He concluded his night with five strikeouts, reaching 1,000 in his career, in two innings. He didn’t give up a hit and walked two. He threw 35 pitches, concluding each with his usual grunt, and headed to the bullpen to toss 16 more.
“Just a few little bumps in the road in the first inning,” Hill said, “but I felt pretty good overall.”
The Dodgers took a 1-0 lead against Bolanos (0-2), an erratic hard thrower, in the first inning. The margin was inflated to five runs when Max Muncy, playing in his first game since injuring his quadriceps Friday, demolished a moonshot for a grand slam against right-hander Gerardo Reyes. Muncy’s 34th home run this season was the Dodgers’ seventh grand slam.
Dylan Floro gave up three runs and five hits in the fifth inning, but that was all the Padres, playing their third game since manager Andy Green was fired, could muster against the Dodgers’ eight pitchers.
Tony Gonsolin (4-2), still auditioning for a spot on the playoff roster, relieved Hill and recorded two clean innings. Adam Kolarek continued starring in his role of left-handed specialist with a strikeout of Eric Hosmer to end the fifth inning. Kenley Jansen was summoned for the ninth. He issued a two-out walk but avoided any damage for his 31st save in 39 chances.
During the middle of the pitching carousel, the Atlanta Braves lost to the Kansas City Royals to clinch for the Dodgers the top seed in the NL playoffs. They will have home-field advantage in an NL Division Series and in the Championship Series should they advance.
Hill aspires to help the Dodgers through those two rounds. He started Tuesday after spending some time convincing his superiors he could pitch through his knee ailment without a significant amount of missed time.
Hill reinjured his MCL on Sept. 12, in his first start after nearly two months on the injured list because of a forearm strain. He initially injured the knee in spring training and made his season debut six weeks later. Hill could secure only two outs that night in Baltimore against the Orioles. An MRI exam showed scar tissue was causing the pain.
Pitching with a knee brace protruding through his gray baseball pants, Hill favored his left leg from the outset Tuesday as he battled to complete his first inning since June 19. He struck out Manuel Margot, the leadoff hitter, with his seventh pitch but limped after delivering it.
He didn’t finish some of his trademark pitches, leaving them high and out of the strike zone, and his fastball didn’t reach 90 mph. Roberts and pitching coach Rich Honeycutt observed together with angst.
Hill seemed destined for another premature exit as he walked Manny Machado before getting Eric Hosmer to hit a grounder to Muncy at first base. Muncy threw to second base to get an out, leaving Hill to cover first base for a potential double play. But Hill’s gait was hindered. The Dodgers settled for one out before Hill struck out Hunter Renfroe swinging at a curveball.
Hill’s outing, season, and maybe even Dodgers career, could have ended there. But the soon-to-be free agent refused to relent.
“There’s a lot of fight,” Roberts said. “There’s will in there with Richie.”