LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rich Hill is living a Hollywood story.
Twenty-six months ago, he was pitching for the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League.
Thirteen months ago, he was pulled from a perfect game after seven innings because of his pitch count.
Two months ago, another perfect-game bid was spoiled by a leadoff error in the ninth.
And on Wednesday night, the 37-year-old left-hander will be on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers starting Game 2 of the World Series.
“A couple years ago, I was using a bucket in independent ball as a toilet,” he recalled last weekend.
Script writers seeking a follow-up to “Bull Durham,” ”Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” need look no farther than Dodger Stadium, just 7 miles down the 101 from the Walk of Fame. Hill will take on the Houston Astros, who start Justin Verlander, the MVP of the AL Championship Series.
REACTION: Fans Thrilled On Social Media
After a decade in the major leagues, Hill began 2015 with the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A team at Syracuse, New York, and was released in June. He signed with the Ducks, struck out seven over five hitless innings on Aug. 2 against the Bridgeport Bluefish, then a week later struck out 14 over six scoreless innings versus the Camden Riversharks.
“I think it’s something that people will think of and say, wow, it’s just a bunch of guys that are washed up or guys that didn’t get an opportunity to make it,” he explained Tuesday. “But that’s not true. If you actually go to a game and take it in and see, there’s a lot of good talent here. It just happens that there wasn’t any room for these players in affiliated baseball.”
Boston took notice, purchased his contract and brought him back to the big leagues in mid-September.
“It was a great experience. I wouldn’t change that for anything,” Hill said. “It was learning again, reigniting that fire, reigniting that passion for what we do out there on the field 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.”
He went 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts with the Red Sox and earned a $6 million, one-year deal with Oakland for 2016. Dealt to the Dodgers that Aug. 1, he went 7-5 with a 2.12 ERA in 20 starts overall, became a free agent again and signed a $48 million, four-year contract to remain with Los Angeles.
At the news conference to announce his big deal, Hill’s voice quavered and his face flushed with emotion when he thanked his wife Caitlin; son Brice, who was born in 2011; and son Brooks, who was less than 2 months old when he died in February 2014.
“He was born with multiple issues that we confronted and had to deal with,” Hill said at spring training that year. “Unfortunately, he succumbed. He’s passed. He taught us a lot of things. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts admires Hill for a passion and intensity that stands out even among hyper-competitive major leaguers.
“He’s whacky on his start days,” Roberts said. “He gets more mad when he swings and misses than he does giving up a homer. This guy thinks he’s Superman on the baseball field. So it’s kind of comical at times.”
Hill’s performance in Los Angeles has been blistering — both good and bad.
He retired his first 21 batters at Miami on Sept. 10 last year when Roberts removed him after 89 pitches. Hill didn’t pitch in the majors between May 29 and July 2 because of a strained left groin and between July 17 and Aug. 24 because of a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” Roberts said then. “This is probably the worst I’ve felt after a win.”
On Aug. 23 this year, he retired his first 24 batters at Pittsburgh before third baseman Logan Forsythe allowed Jordy Mercer’s grounder to bounce off his chest and skip away for an error. Hill pitched no-hit ball until Josh Harrison homered on a fastball leading off the 10th that gave the Pirates a 1-0 win.
Still, his season was interrupted twice by the blister, which sent him to the disabled list from April 7-16 and April 17 to May 16. After returning for the second time, he held opponents to a .194 batting average and averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings, finishing with a 12-8 record.
He didn’t get a decision in his first two postseason starts this year, allowing two runs over four innings as the Dodgers beat Arizona 8-5 in Game 2 of the Division Series and giving up one run over four innings during the 4-1 win over the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the Championship Series.
Hill thought back to “those times of struggle and in the times of failure in the rehab, the years of rehabbing, not being in an affiliated clubhouse.”
“You understand how fortunate you are to play this game and fortunate to be able to get the opportunity to go out there and play,” he said.