It’s hard, sometimes, to imagine a crueler game than baseball—one where the best day of your life can go sour in the span of a few heart-stopping seconds. So it was for Dodgers lefty Rich Hill, who on Wednesday night came three outs away—just three Pirates hitters—from throwing a perfect game. Instead, four batters later, it was over: As Josh Harrison circled the bases following his walk-off home run in the 10th and as Pittsburgh mobbed the field, Hill staggered off the mound at PNC Park, the owner of perhaps the unluckiest and toughest loss the game has ever seen.
“It falls on me, on this one,” Hill told reporters afterward. “One bad pitch.”
For eight innings, Hill was literally untouchable. The 37-year-old lefty had the Pirates at his mercy, retiring the first 24 batters he faced in order. He was efficient, needing only 87 pitches to navigate those first eight frames. He was pumping in strikes, with 67 of those offerings catching a corner or drawing a swing and a miss. He didn’t ask his fielders to carry the load, save for an outstanding diving catch by Chase Utley at second base for the first out of the eighth—the highlight-reel defensive play seemingly required of every perfect game or no-hitter.
What Hill did need, though, were runs—any at all. For as good as he was through eight innings, there was little-heralded Pirates starter Trevor Williams matching him, zero for zero, on the scoreboard. Williams was no threat to history, having given up a clean single to his second hitter of the night, but he was otherwise every bit Hill’s equal, flummoxing Dodgers hitters with a hard four-seamer and a diving sinker. Threats were quietly extinguished; twice, Hill batted with runners on and couldn’t help his own cause. Relievers Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio kept the hard-hitting Dodgers off the board, too, as the best team in baseball couldn’t get that crucial run to make Hill’s effort stand up.
But Hill kept going, utilizing his familiar two-pitch mix of fastballs and knee-buckling curves. He may not have had the offense, but he did have his own stuff—the same stuff that had gotten him within six outs of a perfect game just shy of a year ago against the Marlins. That night, despite throwing only 89 pitches through seven innings, manager Dave Roberts told him that his day was done; the skipper was worried that a recurring blister on his left index finger was set to pop up again and wreak havoc, and Hill was too valuable to the team’s championship hopes to lose. Never mind that Hill told reporters afterward that his finger felt fine: His chance at history was over, and the next inning, so too was the combined perfect game bid. It was a decision, Roberts said afterward, that made him feel sick to his stomach.
Here, then, was the happy ending, 11 months late. And who better to get it than Hill? He is 37 years old and was out of baseball two seasons ago after several years spent split between the bullpen and the operating table, his arm getting opened up and stitched close over and over again. He was a former top prospect gone bust, reduced to a sidearming lefty specialist who had cycled through five different teams in three seasons, until the summer of 2015, when he decided he was done being a reliever. Then with the Nationals, he opted out of his minor league contract. I want to start, he told teams, and they all shied away. So he went all the way down to the independent Atlantic League and to the Long Island Ducks, a team that essentially functions as a last-chance home for former MLB regulars, to become a starter once more.
It took only two starts for him to earn his chance, as the Red Sox signed him and called him up late in the season to fill a hole in the rotation. With nothing expected of him, he flourished, posting a 1.55 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 26 innings. That got him a one-year deal for 2016 with the A’s, for whom he shined despite blister issues. That July, he was shipped to Los Angeles to help bolster a rotation in need of depth, and while those nagging blisters again limited his availability, he was as good as advertised, with a 1.83 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 34 1/3 frames. When he hit free agency that winter, he did so as the best starter on the market, and that December, he signed a three-year, $48 million deal to stay in Dodgers blue and white. From the independent leagues to a multi-millionaire in the span of 18 months: Rich Hill’s story was too good to be true.
So too, apparently, was the perfect game. It took only one batter for things in the ninth to go horribly wrong. Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer took Hill’s first pitch of the inning, a fastball away, and chopped a routine groundball to third base. It looked like the easy first out, but Logan Forsythe—starting in place of All-Star Justin Turner—was eaten up by the hop. The ball careened off his wrist and a few feet to his left, where he picked it up but couldn’t get the throw off to first. Just like that, the perfect game was over.
Hill bounced back, getting the next three in order to preserve the no-hitter, but the Dodgers stayed scoreless in the top of the tenth. Now came another tough decision for Roberts: Stick with his starter, who hadn’t even hit the 100-pitch mark yet, or once again take away his chance? Roberts opted to go with Hill, making him the first starter to see the 10th since Cliff Lee in 2012, but the end came swiftly anyway. On the fourth pitch of his at-bat leading off the inning, Harrison got a hold of a middle-in fastball and poked it just over the outstretched glove of Curtis Granderson in leftfield for a 1–0 win. Despite one of the most dominant pitching displays of the season, Hill would have nothing to show for it.
Hill’s hard-luck loss calls to mind one of the most famous non-no-hitters in MLB history: that of Harvey Haddix, who blanked the powerhouse Milwaukee Braves over 12 perfect innings on May 26, 1959, for the Pirates (ironically enough). But Pittsburgh couldn’t push across any runs for him, and after a dozen scoreless frames, he finally cracked in the 13th: Like Hill, he lost his perfect game on an error, then gave up a walk-off hit to Joe Adcock to take a heartbreaking 1–0 defeat. The story was that after the game, Haddix could be seen wandering the streets of Milwaukee in a daze until dawn.
Whether or not Hill finds himself trekking through downtown Pittsburgh tonight, it’s hard to imagine a tougher way to lose. When he took the mound to start the ninth, he was on the verge of becoming just the 24th man in over 140 years of baseball and the first since 2012 to go 27 up and 27 down. Instead, as he left the field and got hug after hug from his sympathetic teammates while the Pirates celebrated at home plate, he found himself in an even more exclusive club: the only major league pitcher ever to lose a no-hitter on a walk-off home run.