ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With the David Ortiz hoopla over, and two sub-.500 teams playing before a paltry crowd, why not revel in the Rich Hill story?
Scouts representing the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Orioles, Cubs, White Sox, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Twins, Rangers, Rockies, Padres, Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, and Red Sox were mostly finishing up coverage of the Rays, who may trade one of their starting pitchers this offseason to acquire more hitting help.
But they were also curious to see what Hill looked like almost six years after his last start.
One scout remembered Hill when he first came up with the Cubs as a kid “who had some really nasty stuff.” Through the years, Hill became a reliever, and changed to a sidearmer amid labrum and Tommy John surgeries. There’s not much Hill hasn’t been through.
At 35, the Milton, Mass., product went out and pitched like the Hill scouts remembered way back when. In seven innings and 109 pitches, he allowed one questionable hit (which could have been an error on Xander Bogaerts) allowed one walk, hit two batters, and struck out 10.
His last start was July 27, 2009, when he was with the Orioles. He made 119 relief appearances since then.
“Sandy [Leon] did a great job behind the plate,” Hill said. “I followed his lead and the command was there with the fastball, able to keep the ball down. Commanded my breaking ball the way I wanted to, and that enhanced the fastball so I got a lot more swings and misses with the fastball.”
He was throwing his fastball at about 92 miles per hour with good location and late life. Nobody could touch his 12/6 curveball, which was as good as it was six years ago.
The 12/6 curve has become almost a lost art. It’s been replaced, often times, by the cutter or the slider. The pure curveball is yesterday’s pitch. If you have an effective curve, the hitter has trouble recognizing it because he doesn’t see it that much.
But Hill managed to show it quite often.
It was really a perfect time, and against the perfect team for Hill to make his comeback. The Rays have the 28th-ranked offense in baseball. Problem was Tampa Bay starter Drew Smyly was matching him on the other side.
Hill’s career survived thanks to a two-start stint with the independent league Long Island Ducks after he was released by the Nationals. He threw five no-hit innings in one start for the Ducks, and struck out 14 in six innings in the other. The Red Sox signed him based on those two starts.
He was 3-2 with a 2.78 ERA for Pawtucket.
When he was with the Red Sox between 2010-12, he made 40 relief appearances and was 2-0 with a 1.14 ERA, best in team history among those with at least 15 innings pitched. Hill had a .217 opponents’ batting average, striking out 36 and allowing only four earned runs on 25 hits in 31⅔ innings. Hill has also pitched for the Yankees, Cubs, Orioles, and Angels.
Recently, when the Red Sox decided to go with a six-man rotation, Hill was summoned after passing his test in Pawtucket.
The big adjustment for Hill was going back to a conventional three-quarters delivery and scrapping the sidearm delivery.
Hill said he was his own worst enemy in his time in Syracuse earlier this season because he couldn’t decide on an arm angle. But once he started pitching again, he was registering 92-94 m.p.h. on the radar gun, a positive sign which he continued Sunday.
Hill was more 90-92 m.p.h. in this game but that was good enough considering the curveball was coming in at 74-76 m.p.h., a nice contrast in speeds and movement.
Every batter he faced struck out at least once. He had three multiple strikeout innings.
Sox manager Torey Lovullo had talked about a 90-pitch range for Hill before his start, but Hill didn’t appear fatigued. Lovullo, in fact, mentioned that Hill didn’t have many extended innings.
“It’s a great story,” Lovullo said. “You could see all the hard work he put in. Everything he did behind the scenes paid off. Everytime he needed a big pitch, he made it.”
Hill pitched a dominant seventh inning, striking out Steve Souza Jr. and Richie Shaffer and retiring Tim Beckham on a grounder to first base. And even with the possible error/no error looming, Lovullo said there was no way they would have sent him out for the eighth in case the hit was overturned.
Last week, Hill’s former University of Michigan classmate, Tom Brady, won a Deflategate ruling and a game. This week, Hill shocked the world. He is expected to get two more starts, but there are no guarantees for next season. It could be Hill pitches well enough to get a starting job in spring training somewhere. But at least he’s getting a chance.
“Just getting the opportunity was one thing and things had to fall into place too, which they did. Worked out well. I was fortunate to get the opportunity with Long Island and fortunate to get the opportunity here with Boston,” Hill said.
All in all, it was a nice September surprise.