WASHINGTON -- From the independent Long Island Ducks to the deciding game of the National League Division Series, all in a span of barely over a year, it has been a wild ride for Rich Hill.
Hill was acquired by the starting-pitching-starved Dodgers on Aug. 1, which was not a surprise since he went 9-3 with a 2.25 ERA for Oakland. But his acquisition was, by no means, a slam-dunk decision.
Hill, 36, was on the disabled list at the time the Dodgers traded for him. Though he officially was dealing with a blister on the middle finger of his left hand, the injury was essentially a wound when all the layers of skin ripped off the tip of the finger. It took six weeks to get him back on the mound, far longer than the Dodgers expected.
An even bigger surprise than Hill being a desired commodity for the stretch drive was his career arc.
The veteran was a reliever in the Nationals' system at the start of 2015, but he requested a release through the opt-out clause in his contract when he was stuck at Triple-A with the Syracuse Chiefs.
It was an understandable move, especially at age 35, but one that didn’t improve the situation at first glance. Without an immediate offer, Hill signed with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball club.
His road to Thursday night’s game actually began with his short stint at Long Island, as he went back to his roots and became a starter. After 21 strikeouts in 11 innings with the Ducks, Hill finished last season in the Boston Red Sox’s rotation.
His reinvention earned him a $6 million deal at the start of this season with the A’s, and his continued success earlier this year convinced the Dodgers to add him to the roster in their playoff quest.
And in an interesting twist, success in his outing Thursday against the Nationals would take the Dodgers to Chicago for the National League Championship Series. There, Hill would be matched up against the Chicago Cubs, the team that originally drafted him in 2002 and where he made his major league debut in 2005.
How does Hill feel about where he has been and where he has come from in a short amount of time? Good question, because Hill has avoided talking about much outside of the here and now.
"Yeah, I think it's a great question, with just going over the whole spectrum of the season," Hill said earlier this season, hinting that perhaps he might break down the recent past. But his current mantra ended that concept in a hurry.
"I think looking back on it, I've said this over and over again, is staying in the moment. Taking each day as it is and being as productive as I can be within the time that I have for every day that I get to play this game. And really, that's the best way that I can sum it up.
"And again, bringing that intensity every time that I go to the mound, bringing that passion every time that I get the opportunity to pitch, is something that is with me, really, defines the moment and something that I've been able to do well this year."
Another thing he has been able to do this year is to flip his curveball toward the plate for strikes. Hill was heavily curveball reliant in Game 2 of the series, and he figures to be the same again. He pitched well against the Nationals on Saturday, but he was done in by a three-run home run by catcher Jose Lobaton. The Dodgers lost 5-2.
In his club’s most important game of the season Thursday, Hill will take the mound on three days of rest for the first time in more than a decade, when he was with the Cubs. But as Hill has shown, it is a brand new day. He is taking things in the moment, and this will be the ultimate moment for his club.
"Somebody told me, you prepare so the occasion rises to you, not that you have to rise to the occasion," Hill said this week, repeating another of his slogans. "So it's no bigger than any other game. Yeah, is it bigger than any other -- of course it's bigger than other games. It's the postseason. However, when you look at it from the standpoint of preparation, you prepare and prepare and prepare, so when you get to these moments, it's the same as a regular-season game."
It is an outlook that might not work for everybody, but for the well-traveled Hill, it somehow makes perfect sense.