LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers try to extend their World Series lead over the Astros on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, and they send Rich Hill to the mound facing one of the teams who courted him as a free agent last winter.
Hill mentioned the Yankees and Astros as teams that showed interest in his services, though he ultimately decided to return to the Dodgers at the winter meetings in December on a three-year, $48 million deal.
“It went pretty far. The contractual talks got pretty deep,” Hill said of his dalliance with the Astros. “It didn't get as far as flying out to Houston.”
It has been a long journey for Hill to get to this point, making his World Series debut at age 37, just 27 months removed from pitching in independent league baseball with the Long Island Ducks, the experience of which already gave us the line of this World Series that is unlikely to be topped.
Rich Hill put being in the World Series in persoective: “A couple years ago, I was using a bucket in independent ball as a toilet.”— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) October 22, 2017
“Really going back and thinking about that it was a great experience. I wouldn't change that for anything. It was learning, again, reigniting that fire, reigniting that passion for what we do out there on the field,” Hill said. “And really getting back into disassociating yourself with the results and just understanding that it is a pitch-to-pitch process and understanding that the moment is all that matters.”
The results have been there for Hill since his Long Island days. Since rejoining the majors in late 2015, first with the Red Sox, then with the A’s and now the Dodgers, he has a 2.65 ERA in 49 starts. Among pitchers with at least 40 starts in the last three seasons, Hill’s 156 ERA+ ranks second in the majors, behind only Clayton Kershaw.
Hill often talks of living in the moment, and keeping things simple, like using his best pitch more often. He threw his curveball 39% of the time this season, more often than all but one major league pitcher with at least 100 innings.
The only pitcher who threw his curveball more often than Hill in 2017 was Lance McCullers, who ended Game 7 of the ALCS with 24 consecutive curveballs.
“I did see that,” Hill said Tuesday. “It was awesome.”
Hill is one of the most mild-mannered Dodgers, at least on days he’s not pitching. But on the mound, he transforms into a ball of intensity.
“It starts from the moment he walks in the clubhouse. There is just that glazed look over his eyes, and he's really not seeing or hearing you,” manager Dave Roberts said. “That certainly is contagious, and it heightens the focus. Any time he takes the mound, I think we all get fired up. Just everyone feeds off of it.”
The Dodgers face a tough task in Game 2, facing a pitcher in Justin Verlander who since joining the Astros has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He has taken the ball nine times for Houston, including the playoffs — eight starts, and one relief appearance. He has won all nine games, allowing eight total runs, with 67 strikeouts, 11 walks and a 1.23 ERA.
Verlander shares some of that hyper intensity with Hill.
“There are times throughout the course of the game where I lose track of where we're at in the game and don't really know what's going on,” Verlander said. “It's just my sole focus even between innings is thinking about what I can do to execute and thinking about what pitches I should throw and what I've seen and what my instincts are telling me, you're just that much more focused on the task at hand.”
Sounds like Game 2 is something to focus on.
World Series Game 2 info
First pitch: 5:09 p.m.
TV: Fox (coverage starts at 4:30 p.m.)
Announcers: Joe Buck, John Smoltz, Ken Rosenthal, Tom Verducci
Online streaming: Fox Sports Go
Local radio: AM 570 (Charley Steiner, Rick Monday)
National radio: ESPN Radio (Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone)