As an uncharacteristically strong April winds down for the Dodgers, the month ends on an especially reassuring note with their starting pitching finally at full strength. After their emergency rotation was quickly exposed in the four-game sweep by St. Louis, they have steadily regained balance in the arms department with the returns of Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Today, the troika of lefty aces is fully restored with the return of Rich Hill, who is more than ready after his final minor league rehab start.
Rich Hill reluctantly went and made an additional rehab start against extended spring training hitters and struck out 16 in 6 innings and that is hilarious.
— Joe Davis (@Joe_Davis) April 23, 2019
As fun as it is to laugh at Dick Mountain obliterating helpless minor leaguers, there is an elephant in the room that lurks as he takes his first start. That’s the reality that this is his first Dodgers start (of consequence anyway) since game four of the 2018 World Series.
In the long history of Dodger October what-ifs, it stands alongside Hanley’s cracked ribs, Tom Niedenfuer pitching to Jack Clark, Mickey Owen’s passed ball, and the eighth inning-on of game two of the 2017 World Series as one of the most supremely regrettable.
One could argue it’s the most regrettable of all, given it hinged on an inexplicable miscommunication. With Hill cruising through six shutout innings and a 4-0 lead, Los Angeles was closing in on series momentum. Hill had instructed Dave Roberts to keep an eye on him as his pitch count rose, and with one out in the seventh, it was time to make a choice. It was effectively the inverse of Grady Little leaving in Pedro Martinez too long in 2003, with a fresh bullpen on standby. In this instance, the bullpen had been burned by an arguably pyrrhic 18-inning victory the night before, and Hill thus had to go as long as possible.
After a walk to Xander Bogaerts and lefty Brock Holt coming up, Roberts headed to the mound. Hill wordlessly handed him the ball, assuming he was being pulled. We all know what happened next. Scott Alexander withered, Ryan Madson coughed up even more inherited runs, Kenley Jansen blew another six-out save, and dam burst in the ninth on Dylan Floro and Kenta Maeda as the Red Sox surged to a 9-6 comeback win. Roberts was crucified on Twitter, with even the President chiming in. A 2-2 series tie, as well as Yasiel Puig’s earth-shaking home run, were squandered.
When Boston did finish off the series the next night, the overwhelming consensus was that it was simply because they were the far superior team. Even with the heartbreak of game four, it was far removed from the cavalcade of missed opportunities that made 2017 so painful. But that didn’t stop the Roberts/Hill miscommunication from being scrutinized endlessly all offseason. To Doc’s credit, he opened up about his regrettable decision in December on the Dan Patrick Show:
On his end, Hill insisted even after the game that there were no hard feelings. Given the miscommunication went both ways, it’s reasonable to assume he was being honest. But it’s hard not to think of that moment today, and wonder if it’s just as much on both men’s minds as well.
Facing Pittsburgh once again
To add to this lingering feeling of contrition, the team Hill faces in his 2019 debut is none other than the Pittsburgh Pirates, against whom he experienced an even bigger lost opportunity in August 2017. At PNC Park, Hill was perfect for eight innings, seemingly poised to claim the 24th perfect game in MLB history. In a season that saw the Dodgers on the verge of being the Best. Team. Ever, a perfect game from their beleaguered veteran ace seemed like just another logical step in their ascension to the pinnacle of greatness. Surely they could spot him a run to secure it..
Except…they didn’t. The offense that made Absolute Madness happen night after night, that pummeled all opposition with ease, suddenly couldn’t muster a single run against a sub-.500 team. With no score going into the bottom of the ninth, the perfect game was lost on an error. Now with just a plain Jane no-hitter, Hill nonetheless persisted and took it into the 10th, still no score. Josh Harrison ended his remaining hopes with a walk-off solo homer. History slipped away inexplicably, and perhaps contagiously; the team immediately sank into a 1-16 spiral that cost them a chance at the MLB regular season wins record. One could even say it foreshadowed their agonizingly close demise in that year’s World Series too.
The pain of that lost perfect game is one that can never be redeemed. It doesn’t help that that wasn’t even the first time he came close to one. But the regret of the 2018 World Series debacle CAN be redeemed. Given this is the final year of Hill’s contract, and his turning 39 last month, it seems a given this is the last chance to get him that ring.
It’s a long road back to the last October stage. But Dick Mountain has traveled many a difficult road both on and off the field, and with him back on the mound every fifth day, the Dodgers can make their World Series path perhaps their smoothest one yet. Here’s to today’s game being the first step in bringing his tribulation-laden baseball story to the happy ending it dearly deserves.
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