At the rate his recovery was going more than a month ago, many pundits felt that it would be tough for veteran Rich Hill to build up his arm enough to contribute as a starter for the Dodgers during the 2019 postseason.
Initially, it seemed as if he was destined for a role in the bullpen, if there was to be any role at all.
However, just over the last week to 10 days, things seemed to have changed course a bit, as Hill’s throwing program has accelerated.
During the Marlins series last Thursday in Florida, the lefty played catch from 120 feet and made 50 throws in all. At Dodger Stadium before the opener against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, he threw comfortably from 150 feet. Based on what they saw, both management and trainers are permitting the veteran to throw a bullpen later this week—his first since being diagnosed with a flexor tendon strain in mid-June.
“The way he threw the baseball, I didn’t see anything that would’ve shown any signs that he was on the injured list,” skipper Dave Roberts said.
And, while it’s certainly foolish to think too far ahead, some folks are envisioning Hill as being a potential fourth starter in the playoffs.
Front office boss Andrew Friedman believes there’s enough time to successfully stretch out Hill’s left arm.
“The question is, do we have time to build him up to 90 to 100 pitches? I think we do,” Friedman stated last week.
Obviously, the starting rotation picture can change over the next five-plus weeks, especially if any type of physical ailment—heaven forbid—sneaks its way into the picture. But, with the way things stand now, Hill could theoretically slide nicely into the fourth starting spot in the postseason, particularly if the team sticks to its sentiments of moving Kenta Maeda back to the bullpen for the beginning of the playoffs.
As far as playoff rotations go, it doesn’t get much better than Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Conceivably, if the Dodgers cruise through the NLDS in convincing fashion, they might not even need a fourth starter until the later stages of the NLCS.
Since his arrival in Los Angeles at the trade deadline back in 2016, Hill has been relatively solid in the postseason. He was smacked around a bit against the Nationals in Game 2 of the 2016 NLDS, but has been relatively consistent otherwise. Over 12 career playoff appearances—11 of which have been starts—he has put together a 3.04 ERA with 63 strikeouts over 50-1/3 innings. Perhaps his best career postseason effort was his last one, when he threw 6-1/3 innings of one-hit ball against the Red Sox in Game 4 of last year’s World Series. (Coincidentally, that was the exact Game 4 that the Los Angeles bullpen imploded, as six relief pitchers surrendered eight runs on seven hits and three walks during the final 2-2/3 innings).
Anyway, there are more than enough opportunities for the team to continue to experiment with different pitching combinations. Time is beginning to run out on the seasons of the affiliates down on the farm, but piggybacking opportunities will exist at the big league level, similar to what the Dodgers are doing with Dustin May to help him get acclimated into a relief role.
Furthermore, righty Tony Gonsolin may continue to wow the world with his splitter and eventually sneak his way into the fourth spot in the playoff rotation, reiterating just how many plausible scenarios exist.
Still, if he show’s he’s 100% healthy, Hill will be the obvious choice, base on his previous track record in the postseason, his ability to handle pressure situations and his will to win.