LOS ANGELES -- Free-agent left-hander Rich Hill underwent October surgery on his left elbow that, he insists, will prolong his career, not end it.
Hill, who turns 40 in March, pitched the last 3 1/2 seasons for the Dodgers before becoming a free agent. His 2019 season was interrupted for three months by what was diagnosed as a strained flexor tendon in his forearm.
But Hill said on Monday that it wasn’t the flexor tendon but a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, which he originally tore in 2011, necessitating Tommy John surgery. However, instead of having a second Tommy John replacement surgery last month, Hill said Dr. Jeffrey Dugas of the Andrews Sports Medicine Center in Birmingham, Ala., performed a “primary repair” procedure.
Dugas uses tape to form an “internal brace” around the damaged ligament that will allow Hill to begin throwing in January, with a June target date for returning to MLB action, about half the recovery time of traditional Tommy John surgery. Hill said Dugas has been performing the procedure for six years and added that Seth Maness and Brandon Guyer are among the Major Leaguers who have had it.
Hill is unlikely to return to action until June, according to a report from WEEI’s Rob Bradford, who first reported the surgery. But, the lefty said, 10 clubs -- including the Dodgers -- expressed interest in signing him at the recent General Managers Meetings.
“I’m 100 percent confident I’ll be back,” said Hill. “I’m looking forward to 2020. If I didn’t think I could come back and help win a championship, I wouldn’t have had the surgery. I can already tell a difference in the way I feel and haven’t picked up a ball, which will happen after the 1st of the year. I think this surgery could be at the forefront of something important moving forward with elbow injuries.”
Although Hill returned to action after three months of rehab, he admitted that he was in pain throughout his comeback. He suffered the injury in the first inning of a June 19 start against the Giants, and rehabbed the elbow (and a sore knee) to return in late September, convincing management he could take the ball in the postseason. He started Game 4 of the National League Division Series and lasted 2 2/3 innings, allowing one run but walking four in the Dodgers' 6-1 loss to the Nationals.
“It was kind of funky,” said Hill. “If it had been a complete tear, I couldn’t have pitched. As it was, it was sore. It would fill up with fluid after playing catch. It would settle down after a couple days and I could pitch and do it all over again.”
Hill's 2019 season, which began with a strained left knee, was typical in a rollercoaster career that has included 15 trips to the injured list and Tommy John surgery. The lefty has pitched for eight Major League teams, and he resuscitated his career in independent ball.
When not sidelined by elbow, knee and blister problems, Hill has been a late-30s marvel with the Dodgers, going 30-16 with a 3.16 ERA in 69 games, all but one of them starts.
Hill made 11 additional postseason starts for the Dodgers, including the club's ill-fated Game 4 in the 2018 World Series. Hill had a one-hitter through 6 1/3 innings when he came out of the game after an apparent communication mixup with manager Dave Roberts, and the bullpen imploded in a 9-6 loss.