On August 9, 2015, Rich Hill tied the Long Island Ducks' team record for strikeouts in a game, with 14; he shares the independent minor league team's record with Mike Loree, a former 50th-round pick of the San Francisco Giants who threw his last professional pitch at the age of 25. Hill was 35 years old, the veteran of parts of ten big-league seasons, most of them spent shuttling between the rotations and bullpens of mediocre Major League teams and their Triple-A affiliates; he had just been cut by the Syracuse Chiefs, Washington's Triple-A team. At that point, Hill's career could easily have been mistaken for a series of false endings, each more distant from where he began, which was as a pitching prospect scouts thought had a chance to stick near the top of a big-league rotation.
But Hill had not stuck anywhere, really. The different choke points on a big-league pitcher's body seized and shut him down in turn; he hurt his back, and then hurt his shoulder compensating for it. He changed his delivery to find a route around the accumulated scar tissue and then he wasn't a starter anymore; he was a lefty who pitched only to other lefties, with a sidearm delivery that was not deceptive enough to do him much good.
Hill's rights have been purchased for cash by the Orioles and the Angels, who bought him from the Red Sox and cut him eight days later after he failed to retire any of the four batters he faced. He has worked in nine big-league organizations and been released three times. He was teammates with Yorman Bazardo and Ruben Quevedo and Prentice Redman in Aragua, Venezuela in 2008, and Sean Burroughs and Lew Ford and somehow Prentice Redman again in Central Islip in 2015.
A decade and a half is a long time to do anything, and Rich Hill's career feels, in a deeper sense, something like three times longer than that. This explains both why it was strange and why it made sense that the Los Angeles Dodgers chose Hill to start the fifth and final game of the National League Divisional Series against the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, on three days rest.
It all figured in a baseball sense, because Hill is, after effectively rebuilding himself as a pitcher on an American Legion field in suburban Boston in 2015, now an extremely effective big leaguer. It made a more resonant metaphorical sense because of the way in which Hill finally made it to his appointed moment. The one-year, $6 million free-agent contract Hill signed last offseason accounts for about two-thirds of his combined career earnings as a baseball player, and he is still engaged in a series of low-intensity skirmishes with a body that seems very conflicted about his desire to play baseball for a living; most recently, Hill has been afflicted with persistent blisters. There are all sorts of metaphors here, if you want them. It's the old friction related to the most basic physical actions of this work, an old tragedy resurfacing now as farce. But also there is no real reason to dress any of this up.
Baseball's postseason can seem, in the giddy eruptions that make it into collective memory—or, anyway, into Fox's commercials—to be about surges and swells, long-wave emotion and the attempt to ride an unbreakable creature for as long as possible. But October is, finally, about attrition and diminution, and every team's frenzied and desperate attempt to negotiate the best possible terms with the inevitable.
Because there were so many walkover series in the early rounds this year, it has been easy to forget this. If you see and hear and read enough about the Cubs' Epic Foosball Tournaments and the Blue Jays' salty promo-cutting bluster, you might start to mistake it for something powerful. In the locker rooms and locked psyches of the players inside them, they may well be. But all of that only works, and can only ever last, until it doesn't. This is not to discount the power of emotion or belief. It's just to point out that there are things more persistent and more powerful than that.
The game that Hill started wound up being the longest nine-inning game in postseason history, not because either team pitched poorly or hit especially well but because each played with such a profound understanding of how close they were to the end. This is not to say that either team played perfectly, or even remarkably well. The managers managed just as hard as they could possibly manage; this was creative and unconventional where it worked, as Steven Goldman noted, mostly because it worked. But the moment was a heavy presence in all of it, both because of how it steepened the stakes and because of how transparently the pressure of the moment forced every gamble—and this was a game that ended with Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw getting the last two outs two days after throwing 110 pitches, after their closer threw nearly twice as many pitches as he had in any game this season, starting in the seventh inning. "Close" is not the right word for a game like this. I'm not sure "fun" really is, either.
Every league has a version of the game that it wants us to buy, and those games only intermittently have much to do with the games we watch. The NBA believes in its own frictionless futuristic mastery, but the actual product is, in a happy accident, something sweatier, more complicated, and more ennobling. The NFL believes that it is selling noble combat, but the games are all too often denatured bureaucratic violence with all the moral depth of a bumfight video. Major League Baseball believes in its own significance—the idea that it is meaningful, and meaningfully American. The fun in watching lies in the ways the games themselves break free of all this and light out for points unknown. On Thursday, and in October as a general rule, baseball subverts its sales pitch by embodying it so perfectly.
Baseball's arrogated Americana is a sentimental and selective thing, as deep as a beer commercial and no deeper. But what was so transporting and so harrowing about watching Game 5, and what makes October baseball different and great, is that heady combination of desperation and dignity. Baseball gives us a regular season that's long enough to be parsed in great and goofy depth, and a postseason that's short enough to be authentically berserk. You, uh, probably have noticed all that, and it's all great, but the key is that the second follows the first, and that everyone involved is already pretty berserk with weariness and thirst by the time it even starts. At the very least, everyone is too tired and too raw to make the work look like anything but work, and to keep the inner desperation—and what is more immediately identifiable as American, now, than an exhausted march along a knife-edge, with a long fall below?—from making itself legible to everyone watching.
Rich Hill pitched well enough on Thursday, if not long enough or well enough to get the win. But he was, undeniably, the man for this moment. It was Kenley Jansen's guttiness and Kershaw's greatness that sealed it, but Hill is the one who should have started it in ways that go beyond the baseball considerations. His life in the game, like the playoffs themselves, has been a long fight between things that take time and time taking things away. He survived the way the Dodgers survived, which is the only way that any team ever survives October—one struggle after another, over and over again, against reason and circumstance and everything else. It can look, in moments or over the long span of a career, awfully heroic. It should also look familiar.
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