It wasn't pretty. Often times it was ugly, but somehow, someway, Rich Hill managed to pitch his way on to the Dodgers postseason roster.
Entering September, Hill had not pitched since June 19, exiting that start early with left forearm tightness.
"Forearm tightness," are two of the scariest words a pitcher can utter to an athletic trainer. Tightness in the forearm is typically a precursor to an elbow injury, and an elbow injury for a pitcher often means Tommy John surgery.
Thankfully, Hill was able to avoid his second such surgery of his career and after months of not picking up a baseball, he began to rehabilitate himself in August to get ready for the postseason.
Unfortunately for Hill, his comeback train was derailed during his first return to the mound in Baltimore on Sept 12. After striking out the first two batters he faced, Hill hit two of the next hitters, and walked two more, allowing a run without surrendering a hit.
Hill was removed from the game after just 2/3 of an inning, and complained of left knee pain following the appearance. Hill had sprained his left MCL during spring training, and early indications were he had sprained it again.
However, two days later in New York, Hill was seen playing catch while wearing a left knee brace. After seeing doctor Neal S. ElAttrache back in Los Angeles, Hill was told that he did not reinjure his knee, but rather the discomfort he felt was scar tissue breaking apart. Something that's normal after an MCL sprain.
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Hill got the green light to continue throwing while wearing the knee brace, and was able to convince the Dodgers front office to give him another start to prove he could pitch in the postseason.
Over the next 10 days, Hill discovered a way to change his delivery in order to put less pressure on his left knee. The 39-year-old left-hander said he adjusted his left foot to a 45-degree angle while pushing off the rubber on the mound. This simple change in angle put less torque on the knee, but still gave him the necessary drive to throw his fastball at 88MPH and higher.
Hill pitched without discomfort during his bullpen, side sessions, and simulated games leading up to his next start, but early in his outing on Sept. 24 in San Diego something wasn't right.
Hill was seen grimacing and wincing during the first inning at Petco Park. He paced back and forth on the mound before finally coming set and throwing a pitch.
On the fourth batter he faced, Hill had to sprint to first base in order to cover the bag for a potential double-play. He was unable to get there in time, and limped back to the mound. The Padres had runners at the corners with two outs. In the Dodgers dugout, Rick Honeycutt picked up the phone and called down to his bullpen. Dave Roberts looked on anxiously.
This was the turning point in Rich Hill's comeback. The pinnacle moment where he could have either succumbed to the pain and discomfort and walk off the mound, or dig in his cleats and fight.
Hill chose the latter. He struck out the next batter he saw to end the first inning, and then struck out the side in the bottom of the second.
"I think there was a point in that outing where he just said, 'You're either in or you're out,'" said Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts after the game in San Diego. "I think he was just going to sell out. There's a point where you're guarding and trying to feel your way through it, versus 'it is what it is.' He made that decision and it was good to see."
Hill saw it more of a mental test that he needed to pass. He said after he walked the third hitter of the inning—and his second of the game—that a pivotal moment was upon him. He knew he could get ahead of hitters with his fastball, but it was the confidence in his signature pitch, his curveball, that was lacking.
"I think after that second walk," said Hill on if there was a moment in his outing where things changed. "I said to myself, 'I better start getting guys out.' I was able to figure out that I can throw my curveball for a strike and throw it where I wanted to. A couple of times my knee got in a funky position. After one or two times that happened I was able to pitch through that. I think you're going to have some tough issues to pitch through, and when you're faced with them, you either do it or not do it."
Hill not only did it, he did it well. In his next start five days later, during the Dodgers regular season finale in San Francisco, Hill threw three shutout innings, allowing just one hit with two walks and four strikeouts.
Unlike his start in San Diego, Hill did not wince, grimace or pace back-and-forth around the mound. He remained focused, poised, and steadfast in his goal: to pitch in the postseason.
"I want to pitch. I want to help this team in the postseason," said Hill. "Hopefully, I can prove that I can help the team to do that. That's the main goal. October."
Hill knew the team, the front office, trainers, coaches, and his manager were all watching him closely. He pitched well, and he pitched comfortably. His reward was he was named the Game 4 starter for the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday.
"Rich [Hill] is going to start Game 4," proclaimed Roberts during his press conference with the media.
Roberts declined to announce the rest of his rotation for Games 1-3, but acknowledged that he expected Hill to only be able to give him four innings and another pitcher would have to come on in relief behind him.
Hill pitching for the Dodgers in the postseason is a good thing. In his three years with Los Angeles, Hill has allowed more than two runs only once, and surrendered just one hit in 6 and 1/3 innings in the World Series against the Red Sox last season.
Hill's comeback is not yet complete. He's done the hard part in convincing the team he's ready and healthy enough to pitch in the postseason. Now he needs to help the Dodgers reach their ultimate goal of winning a World Series Championship.
After Hill recorded his 1,000th career strikeout in San Diego, he was asked what the milestone meant to him. His answer was simple and to the point, and indicative of where his mindset is at:
"I'd trade them all in for a World Series [ring]," he said with a wry smile.