By Will Graves
PITTSBURGH — Rich Hill’s first 98 pitches left the Pittsburgh Pirates confounded, occasionally fuming and absolutely hitless. His 99th turned a potentially historic night by the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty into something else entirely:
After Hill’s bid for a perfect game was spoiled by a leadoff error in the ninth inning, Josh Harrison started the 10th by connecting on an 88 mph fastball over the middle of the plate and sending a drive into the first row of seats in left field. It wrecked Hill’s improbable — and improbably lengthy — try at a no-hitter and lifted the Pirates to a stunning 1-0 win on Wednesday.
“It falls on me, this one — one bad pitch,” Hill said.
Dodgers left fielder Curtis Granderson made a fearless attempt to preserve the no-hitter, banging into the wall going for a catch. When the ball sailed inches past his outstretched glove, Harrison sprinted around the bases after his 16th home run, while Hill (9-5) slowly walked off the field after being handed his first loss in nearly two months.
“I hit it and I knew I didn’t get it all,” Harrison said. “I knew I got enough.”
Just enough on a night Hill flirted with the 24th perfect game in major league history. His shot at joining one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs ended when third baseman Logan Forsythe couldn’t handle Jordy Mercer’s grounder opening the ninth. Hill retired the next three batters and manager Dave Roberts sent the 37-year-old Hill out for the 10th, a makeup call of sorts after Hill was pulled after seven innings and 89 pitches of perfection against Miami last September.
It turned out to be one batter too many, though both Hill and Roberts tried to downplay their disappointment. Hill remains in the middle of a late-career renaissance in Los Angeles, and his flirtation with perfection is the latest sign his stuff — built on precision rather than power — can still get batters out with remarkable efficiency.
“He competed, every pitch was with a purpose,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get that one hit. We’ve done it all year long.”
Just not this time.
Seattle ace Felix Hernandez threw the last perfect game in the big leagues, in 2012 against Tampa Bay. Since then, three pitchers have lost perfect-game tries with two outs in the ninth: Yu Darvish for Texas and Yusmeiro Petit for San Francisco in 2013 and Max Scherzer for Washington in 2015. Miami’s Edinson Volquez has pitched the only no-hitter in the majors this year, in June against Arizona.
Hill became the first pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1995 to take a no-hit try into extra innings. Martinez, then with Montreal, lost his perfect game in the 10th at San Diego. Hill finished nine innings with a “0” in the hit column, but it doesn’t count as an official no-no.
Under Major League Baseball rules, a pitcher must complete the game — going nine innings isn’t enough if it goes into extras. Back in 1959, a Pirates pitcher had perhaps the most famous near-miss of all when Harvey Haddix lost his perfect game and the game itself in the 13th at Milwaukee.
Hill nodded when told of Haddix’s story in the aftermath, though the similarities are only superficial. Haddix and the ’59 Pirates finished in fourth place, nine games out of first.
Even with the setback, the Dodgers (89-36) remain within striking distance of the best regular-season record in major league history and favourites to reach the World Series. That was the ultimate goal when Hill threw his first pitch in front of 19,859 at PNC. And when he threw his last.
“We have something bigger than any individual here that’s going on,” Hill said. “That’s something we all realize and have to understand tomorrow is another day and is a big day to come back and win the series. We’re in it for the delayed gratification, not the instant gratification.”
Still, the signs appeared to be pointing toward something special.
Hill raced through eight innings thanks in part to impeccable control and some spectacular defence behind him, most notably a diving grab by second baseman Chase Utley on a liner by Josh Bell leading off the eighth.
Bell was ruled safe on a close play at first in the second inning, but the call was overturned when replay showed Hill tagged him just before his foot hit the bag. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez also made a sliding grab on a bunt attempt by Harrison in the fourth but otherwise, Hill was in firm command.
Hill struck out 10 and only reached three-ball counts twice but it wasn’t enough to shake Pittsburgh’s Trevor Williams. The rookie matched Hill out for out, if not pitch for pitch. Williams scattered seven hits in eight innings, including a nine-pitch battle with Forsythe to end the eighth, an at bat that ended with Forsythe lining out to short with the go-ahead run on second base.
Juan Nicasio (2-5) kept Los Angeles scoreless in the top of the 10th, and Harrison stepped to the plate leading off the bottom of the inning with a little bit of history on his side. He broke up a no-hit bid by Detroit’s Justin Verlander with two outs in the ninth in 2012. That game ended in a Pittsburgh loss.
This one ended with Harrison mobbed at home plate, while Hill left as the losing pitcher following the best game of his career.
“It’s just baseball is so weird and, you end up with a loss,” Williams said of watching Hill work so brilliantly. “It’s crazy.”