Wednesday night, just before Josh Harrison turned on Rich Hill’s 99th pitch and poked a homer over Curtis Granderson’s glove, over the left field wall, I was happily imagining Hill atop a very specific Baseball-Reference Play Index search. I’d been thinking about it for at least 10 minutes, nervously waiting to hear whether the Dodgers had anyone warming up in the bullpen in the top of the 10th inning of a 0-0 game, and then silently rejoicing at the news that they did not.
Hill had completed nine innings without allowing a hit. Usually, five minutes after that reality reveals itself, he would be drenched in Gatorade or beer or both, his limbs aching from exertion and from the dogpile on the mound. That wasn’t happening, though. This no-hitter wasn’t a no-hitter, technically, because the game continued on, a scoreless tie. Everything we thought we’d been watching for two hours was something else entirely.
This new line of thought led naturally to Pedro Martinez, who took a perfect game into the 10th inning in 1995, only to lose it to a leadoff double. But I was thinking about Carlos Martinez. Earlier this year, on May 20, the Cardinals right-hander finished nine scoreless (but not hitless) innings against the Giants on 93 pitches, and I sat in the same breathless anticipation of whether he would get the chance to keep going into the 10th. No starter had pitched in any 10th inning since Cliff Lee in April of 2012, and that seemed like the moment.
It wasn’t. Martinez stayed in St. Louis' dugout, and Lee retained his place on the top of the stack, until Hill emerged in an even more dramatic moment. Then Harrison’s bat struck the ball, and the color seemed to drain from the scene.
Unless you were closely following middling lefty specialists or the Long Island Ducks in the intervening years, the impression of Hill overwritten by his out-of-nowhere 2015 dominance probably came from 2009. He floundered in the Orioles' rotation that July—the last straw a defeat against the Royals in which he didn’t make it out of the third inning. The MLB.com recap made it plain. This could be the end.
Hill's start Monday was arguably his most important this season. With the expected arrival of rookie pitcher Chris Tillman on Wednesday, the Orioles were faced with the decision of sending a starter to the Minors.
And Hill knew it, even in the locker room that day.
"I apologize to the front office and the guys in this clubhouse," Hill said afterward. "It's not something where I go out there and this is what I want. I'm not going out there and wanting to go short in the game and use the bullpen every time I take the ball. My plan is to go out there, start the game and finish it."
When the broadcast returned for the ninth inning Wednesday night, they had to show the clip—you know the ons—of Felix Hernandez, eyes and arms and one knee drawn to the sky in celebration. Presumably one of the video reels behind the glass for every baseball TV producer—break in case of emergency—it flashes back to the last perfect game thrown in the majors, on August 15, 2012, with the obvious implication that this could be its last moment of service.
On some occasions, like Wednesday night, it provides a visceral reminder of how long five years can be in baseball time. There were three perfect games in 2012, and also three starters who lost complete games of nine innings or more by 1-0 scores. Before we knew Hill would be the second to do so since that season (before you ask, it was also Cliff Lee), we could trace a dark timeline back to a game Hernandez pitched less than two weeks after his perfecto.
Like the celebrated footage, it was a 1-0 win for the Mariners. It was the third game that August in which they had beaten someone 1-0 with Felix on the hill. He outdueled Twins starter Liam Hendriks, whose nine innings of three-hit, one-run ball were somehow not enough for his first major-league win. The decisive blemish was a solo homer to the fledgling Mariners right fielder batting seventh that day, Eric Thames.
Before the thought can settle, a booted grounder by Logan Forsythe has sent Hernandez’s reel back into the glass box, still awaiting its replacement.
Prior to Wednesday, Hill hadn’t pitched into the ninth inning since a seemingly meaningless September 2015 game in which the 35-year-old indie ball reclamation project demanded baseball’s attention. Memory being influenced, as it is, by what we know now, it’s hard to recall just how many people had noticed Hill’s return to a big-league rotation to that point. No one missed the third game of his renaissance, a two-hit, 10-strikeout shutout of the Orioles at Fenway Park. It was the moment that Hill became Rich Hill.
You could be forgiven, then, for forgetting that Hill nearly gave up a home run to Chris Davis on the last pitch. The difference was that a) the Red Sox had scored seven runs in support of his outing, and b) Mookie Betts caught it, seesawing on top of Fenway Park’s low bullpen wall and raising his glove in the air.
Shutout preserved, comeback success story Rich Hill was properly recognized.
On Wednesday afternoon, when Hill was coming off a five-inning, three-run outing but generally pitching quite well for the incredibly dominant Dodgers, I was poking through his numbers and noticed something. Hill hasn’t allowed a homer with a man on base since Dioner Navarro’s two-run shot on September 20, 2015—in the second inning of his second game back.
It was a silly but necessary little thing to focus on—before he and Harrison and Forsythe and Trevor Williams and Chase Utley made it more trivial than it already was. I can’t fully remember what that fact was supposed to mean to me, aside from the basic numbers of it. And what Navarro’s homer said in 2015? I couldn’t tell you at all. It was that most elusive of memories: The thing you know just before a new thing takes its place.
I can tell you that Hill had thrown seven phenomenal innings a week earlier against the Rays, and that it was intriguing. And if I had to guess, I’d say the Navarro homer dimmed any and all hope to the point of near blackness. But I don’t know.
Because after allowing three more singles and another run in that inning, Hill went five more innings without another run scoring and got the win. The next time out, he fired that shutout against the Orioles, introducing the intoxicating idea that when firing on all his crazy, screaming, leg-kicking, back-bending, curve-twirling cylinders, this washed-up, mid-30s lefty might be one of the best pitchers in the world.
Hill’s career, once so clearly over, never felt more unfinished than it did in Miami last September. He faced precisely 21 batters in seven perfect innings, but was lifted in favor of Ross Stripling as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts attempted to massage the blister-plagued Hill toward the postseason.
And just as quickly as the thought of the disappointing top prospect had crumbled in 2015, the idea of a perfect game gave way to that vaguely painful vision of glory glimpsed but not grasped. If Wednesday night’s Rich Hill seems another tragic character in the game’s canon—nine faultless innings turned sour by a four-pitch final chapter that rendered him one of the hardest-luck losers in baseball history—try to remember all the versions of Rich Hill he replaced, and wait.