When Rich Hill reached second base Tuesday night, finishing his gawky dash by walking the final couple of steps with deep breaths to complete the unlikeliest double of the Dodgers’ 2019 season, he peered into his team’s dugout with a smile. His teammates roared. His manager shook his head with a grin.
“Because he wasn’t supposed to swing the bat,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after his team’s 6-3 win over the San Diego Padres. “And now it’s like are you going to try to steal third base now? You just never know. He’s just one of those guys that is a kid, just loves to compete, loves to play the game.”
Hill’s performance Tuesday night — from the swing he wasn’t supposed to take to the two innings he labored through on the mound — was about proving a point. Time is running out and the medial collateral ligament in his left knee isn’t cooperating, but the 39-year-old is desperate to participate in the playoffs, which begin next Thursday, in maybe his final season with the Dodgers. That requires convincing his superiors he can pitch through the pain by pushing his limits.
“I want to pitch,” Hill said. “I want to help this team in the postseason. And hopefully I can prove that I can help the team do that. That’s the main goal, is October, and I believe today was a step in the right direction, and you certainly want to continue going in the right direction Sunday.”
Hill’s two-inning start, though ungraceful and arduous, was, by all accounts, a positive. He compiled five strikeouts, walked two, and didn’t allow a hit in his first outing since aggravating the knee injury Sept. 12. He passed the test and is scheduled to start Sunday’s regular season finale against the San Francisco Giants.
The goal Sunday is to log three innings and around 45 pitches. He could throw another inning in the bullpen afterward if he’s efficient. Whether that is his final appearance of 2019 will be decided after that. In an ideal world, Hill would start Game 4 of the NLDS, if necessary, scheduled for Oct. 7.
Although Hill met Tuesday’s objective, uncertainty remains. His struggles — and obvious pain — early in the first inning were worrisome enough for pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to call down to the bullpen to get Dylan Floro to start warming up after Hill walked the second batter he faced. The leash will be shorter in a postseason setting, which could put the Dodgers’ bullpen in a hole.
“I think there was a point in that outing where he just said, ‘You’re either in or out,’” Roberts said. “And I think he was just going to sell out. So I think there’s a point where you’re guarding, you’re trying to feel your way through an outing — versus ‘it is what it is.’ And you’ve really got to see it and give yourself a good gauge on where you’re at. And I think he just made that decision. It was good to see.”
Then there’s fielding his position. Two batters later, Hill hobbled over to cover first base on a ground ball. He and the batter, Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer, reached the base at the same time. Hill grimaced at the end of the sprint. A throw was not made.
“That’s going to be a challenge,” Roberts acknowledged. “And it’s already hard for him because he’s left-handed and he sort of falls off at times. But now you kind of layer that in. So, yeah, it’s going to be a challenge, for sure.”
Hill’s velocity topped out at 90 mph, a couple of ticks short of his typical upper threshold, in the second inning. He said he would make adjustments over the next few days to find that velocity, but he also insisted his spin rate “was as good as it’s ever been.” He said it was evident in the batters’ swings.
“I would like to be throwing a few miles an hour harder,” Hill said. “But when you see swings and misses and late swings and guys fouling balls off away from their dominant hand, it’s a good sign.”
Hill struck out the side in the second inning, bypassing a mental hurdle that he said initially limited him. His curveball, his signature pitch, was particularly sharp. He noted that, for a start that is really like a second spring training outing, it was an encouraging night. But this isn’t spring training. The postseason is right around the corner.
“I think that it’s encouraging that the door remains open,” Roberts said. “And obviously the goal is to get him ready for the [National League Division Series.] ... But it’s open, and that’s a good thing for all of us. ... Now we’ve just got to hope that it continues to get better each day and sustains itself.”