LOS ANGELES — Here’s how Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness to start a playoff game at Dodger Stadium against the Cubs franchise that drafted him 14 years ago.
Hill moved back home to Massachusetts after getting released from the Washington Nationals last June in the middle of his ninth season spent on the Triple-A level. At the age of 35, he started working out with his old American Legion team again, hoping it would be a pit stop on a journey he didn’t want to end.
Hill contacted Jared Porter, the director of professional scouting for the Boston Red Sox at the time who now has the same job with the Cubs. They met at Milton High School — where Hill starred before moving on to the University of Michigan — and Porter can’t even remember who caught the 6-foot-5 lefty during that workout.
But it helped redirect Hill toward Dodger Stadium, where he will stand on a historic mound on Tuesday night and face a star-studded Cubs lineup in a crucial Game 3 in this National League Championship Series.
“Rich really believed in himself,” Porter said. “He deserves all the credit.”
Hill won 11 games for the 2007 Cubs team that captured an NL Central title — and lost Game 3 during that sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks — but until this year had never again reached 20 starts or passed the 100-inning threshold. A series of injuries stalled his career — including Tommy John surgery in 2011 — and his blister issues will absolutely be something to monitor during this tied best-of-seven series.
But Hill was still convinced that he should work as a starter and throw from a higher arm slot. Porter stood behind him and watched him throw from the first-base side of the rubber, another technique teams had encouraged as a way to create more deception as a reliever.
“The first probably 10 or 15 fastballs he threw had tons of life on them,” Porter recalled. “Everything was starting on the outer half of the zone and tailing out of the zone. With Rich, he’s never really gotten hit (hard). He’s gotten in trouble in his career when he hasn’t thrown enough strikes.
“So I was like: ‘Hey, have you ever considered moving over to the third-base side of the rubber?’
“He tried it, and all those balls that were starting in the zone and going out were now starting and staying in the zone because he had the extra foot or so. (Like now) if you watch him now on the extreme third-base side of the rubber.”
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The Red Sox agreed to track Hill as a starter for the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League before eventually signing him to a minor-league deal and plugging him into their Triple-A rotation.
“There (were) absolutely humbling parts of being in the independent league,” Hill said, “whether it was traveling from Sugar Land (Texas) on a 6 a.m. flight (or) no bathroom in the dugout and peeing in a bucket.
“Things like that you have to take into account where you’re playing the game because you love it. But it’s also perseverance that you want to continue to get back to the highest level and not give up and continue to grind.”
The Red Sox also hooked Hill up with Brian Bannister, the pitching guru who combines big-league experience with a fluency in analytics, delivering the message that you can pitch backwards and revolve everything around that curveball. Bannister’s influence had once helped turn Zack Greinke into a Cy Young Award winner with the Kansas City Royals.
Hill parlayed last season’s four quality starts for the Red Sox between Sept. 13 and Oct. 1 into a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s. Fourteen more starts (9-3, 2.25 ERA) with the A’s got him flipped to the Dodgers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
“I watch video,” said Ben Zobrist, the most accomplished postseason hitter in this Cubs lineup. “And when I see (Hill) pitching up there, I’m like: ‘That ball should be going a long ways.’ And guys are getting jammed or popping it up. So there must be something with his spin rate or some deception there where it kind of gets above the barrel.”
Hill threw his curveball more than 42 percent of the time this season, and these Cubs haven’t seen his new left-handed look yet. It created seven perfect innings on Sept. 10 at Marlins Park — before Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Hill while fearing the blister problem and thinking about October.
An ex-Cub who almost completely fell off the grid could have a huge impact on this NLCS.
“Every pitch is its own moment,” Hill said. “It’s really taking that cliché of pitch-to-pitch process. But that’s really what I’ve been able to do — (and) that started in Long Island when I was in independent ball.
“That mindset (carried over to) every single opportunity that I’ve had, every single outing that I’ve had. And not getting outside of that is what I believe has made me successful.”