Rich Hill will never know if he could have pitched a perfect game.
He will never know if he would have claimed a piece of baseball history if he hadn’t been pulled after seven innings Saturday night in Miami because of concerns about a blister. Yet, only three days after his bid to become the 24th man to pitch a perfect game was cut short by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Hill refused to get bogged down in what ifs.
Although Hill was visibly upset when pulled from the game, he refused to second-guess his manager afterward or to dwell upon what might have been while talking with a reporter before the Dodgers’ 3-0 loss to the Yankees Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.
“I was pitching well, but that’s been a pretty continuous thing throughout the season,” Hill said. “I think there is a bigger picture here, and we all know what it is.”
The bigger picture is that the Dodgers seem to know what a big weapon Hill can be in the playoffs if the NL West leaders can keep him healthy. That in itself is remarkable, considering where Hill was a year ago.
Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Hill’s return to a major-league rotation after a five-year hiatus. The 36-year-old lefty is the patron saint of baseball reinvention, a guy who believed in himself when it seemed as if just about no one else did.
On July 28 last year, about a month after being released out of Triple-A by the Nationals, Hill signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. Hill, who began his career as a starter, was converted to a relief pitcher after shoulder surgery in 2009. Though he said he learned a lot as a reliever, he said he never enjoyed it as much as he did being a starter.
So when the Nationals cut him at age 36, he decided not to sign elsewhere as a reliever, even though several teams were interested. Instead, he went home to his American Legion field in Milton, Massachusetts, and threw a couple 75-pitch bullpen sessions. They went well enough that he decided it was something he still could do, and he joined the Ducks.
He was so dominant in two games for them — in 11 shutout innings he had 21 strikeouts, allowing only three walks and two hits — that the Red Sox signed him to a minor-league deal Aug. 14, and he was called up Sept. 8.
Since then, it’s been close to a storybook return, marred by a series of small injuries, including blisters that had put him on the disabled list when the Dodgers acquired him from the A’s on Aug. 1. Still, when he pitches, he really pitches. Since his return to the majors last year, Hill has a 1.74 ERA, the best in baseball over that period, in 124 innings. This season the 12-year veteran is 12-3, 1.80 in 17 starts.
Now it appears that Hill is headed to the postseason for the first time since 2007 with the Cubs, when he started and lost Game 3 of the NLDS against the Diamondbacks. It will be an appearance that Hill has worked hard for, and he hopes it gives others inspiration.
“I think it’s possible for anybody to go out there and chase your dream, go after what you love to do,’’ Hill said. “If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re not going to be happy. You want to do what you love.”