Rich Hill, 37 years into this life and a lot of that in this game, would understand the frailties of both. The things that happen that are out of a man’s control. The good and the bad. The really good and the really bad. Of course he would understand.
So, maybe, in some ways, it was not odd at all to have Rich Hill throw his 95th pitch Wednesday night, a curveball, and to have that pitch become an out, the last out of the ninth, and to have not allowed a hit over 27 outs, and to leave the pitcher’s mound in silence, to not so much as a handshake.
So, the same Rich Hill who’d been removed from a perfect game after seven innings not yet a year ago because of concerns for his health and stamina, the Rich Hill who’d thrown three complete games in his major league career and four as a professional pitcher and one in the past 11 years, returned to the PNC Park mound to improve upon his nine-inning no-hitter. To have it become his 10-inning masterwork. To win a ballgame. To go get what you’d excuse him for thinking he had coming.
Rich Hill, of all people, would understand what happened next. Not like it, of course. The game’s no fairer than anything else, though. In fact it can be meaner than most. This is a fact he may have previously considered, given his own long and winding journey to this mound on this night, to the 99th pitch on this night.
Four pitches into what was supposed to be his 10-inning masterwork found Rich Hill standing in the grass just to the left of the pitcher’s mound, which is where his tumbling pitching mechanics carried him, that and his ensuing curiosity for what would come of the ball Josh Harrison hit in the air to deep left field. The ball landed in the first row of the bleachers, turned out, by a few feet over Curtis Granderson’s glove, by a few feet a home run, and this was where Rich Hill left the field for a second time after having thrown a nine-inning no-hitter, only this time against the grain of the celebratory whoops of the other guys.
He reached the top step with his catcher’s arm around his waist. Teammates reached from below him with their right hands. Hill received them with his head down, these handshakes he seemed to force himself to believe in.
He’d been perfect for eight innings. That was lost after the first pitch of the ninth, a fastball that was redirected and then bounced twice on the infield grass and then off third baseman Logan Forsythe’s glove for an error. Hill nodded, seemed to say something kind and supportive to Forsythe, and got back to work on the no-hitter that would both be and not be.
The Dodgers never did score a run. They had eight hits and drew four walks and left 11 of those 12 out there, passing Rich Hill on his way back to the mound, inning after inning. He leaned a bit harder on his fastball than usual, chased it with his curveball, and struck out 10 Pirates. The umpires, and replay, missed an early call that kept the perfect game alive. Chase Utley dove to snare a line drive in the eighth inning, the kind of play that suggests the mystical is coming soon. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts lifted his tendency to overprotect his pitchers for the occasion, and he sent Hill out again for the 10th, and was in the mood to send him out again in the 11th too. Men such as Rich Hill have that coming sometimes, when a career – a life – is spent so earnestly chasing one outcome. You give the man that shot.
And then comes the first walk-off home run to ever kill off a no-hitter in extra innings. Ever. The 22nd perfect game of the modern era was not to be. The 297th no-hitter in history would be someone else’s.
“It falls on me, on this one,” Hill told reporters in Pittsburgh. “One bad pitch.”
If that seemed slightly unforgiving, Hill shook his head and repeated, “No. It was a bad pitch.”
Not so long ago, Rich Hill had refused to leave his career undone, and so he pitched whenever and wherever, often enough and well enough, and became a big leaguer again, in his mid-30’s. He became good again. He signed a big contract. He stands squarely in the middle of what some believe to be the best team in the history of the game, a team that will have a chance to prove that come October.
The reward for Hill is this. The second life in the game. All that comes with it. The fun of it, the day-to-day of it, the great parts and the horrible parts and the parts for which there exists no category. He’d probably understand.
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