Hill finds postseason form but loses duel

September 19th, 2020

As the pitcher with the most starting experience in the playoffs -- by far -- on the roster, would be a logical choice to start a postseason game for most teams. But considering Hill’s inconsistent start to the 2020 season and the logjam in the Twins’ rotation, nothing is certain at this point.

Hill spent most of Friday night’s game making his case, as if the Twins needed any reminder. He never threw harder than 88 mph, but the crafty veteran was at his best as he held the first-place Cubs to three hits in a season-high seven innings at Wrigley Field.

The only problem? Kyle Hendricks was better. “The Professor” delayed a possible Minnesota postseason clinch by baffling the Twins’ lineup for eight innings, winning a 1-0 pitchers’ duel of crafty veterans and keeping the Twins’ magic number to secure a spot in the playoffs at one.

“The opportunity was there, and it’s not for lack of effort,” Hill said. “It’s just we have to continue to keep bringing the intensity every single night, because as these games continue to come down the stretch right now, they’re only going to continue to build. And they’re going to be much more intense as we get into playoff-type scenarios, so we’re controlling our own fate, really.”

Hill spoke at length after his last start about his pride in “pitching” instead of “throwing” in the modern game, and that was on display in Friday’s game despite his fastball averaging a season-low 86.2 mph. The 40-year-old southpaw allowed a run without recording an out with a pair of walks and a Willson Contreras RBI single in the first inning, but he retired 21 of his next 23 hitters to finish his outing without further damage.

The Cubs’ average exit velocity off Hill was 79.2 mph, and only two batted balls were considered hard-hit (95 mph or harder off the bat). Of the three singles he allowed, only two left the infield. Hill struck out five and walked a pair as he threw a season-high 95 pitches.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli had shown an early hook for Hill in several starts this season, but he didn’t hesitate to let the veteran go out for the full seven innings.

“It didn’t seem like he was weakening in any way,” Baldelli said. “Strong, he was making pitches, strong strikes, wasn’t letting Chicago do anything, wasn’t letting them get anything going, really, at all. When he’s cruising like that, there’s not a lot for us to think about. We’re down by a run, we’re able to stay in the game, Rich is pitching great, and he still has some pitches to play with.”

Hill alternated strong and ineffective starts at the start of the season and has labored through innings at times, but he didn’t sound worried about his spot in a potential playoff rotation, even with only two or three starting slots available in the Wild Card Series and Kenta Maeda, Michael Pineda and José Berríos all having thrown well down the stretch.

Friday marked the first time Hill threw more than five innings in a start for the Twins, but that’s fine with him in the big picture. He noted that he has always been at his best in September and October (2.83 career ERA with a 0.97 WHIP) and in the postseason (3.06 ERA in 13 games, including 12 starts), and that’s what matters to him.

That’s held true this September, too. Hill has held opponents to five earned runs across 17 innings in three starts this month (a 2.65 ERA), second on the team to Maeda’s 2.50 ERA in three September outings.

He thinks there’s something to be said for that when making decisions come playoff time.

“I think with the amount of postseason experience that I’ve had, the way that I’ve thrown the ball in the postseason obviously speaks for itself, and also being able to do it on the biggest stage, which is the World Series,” Hill said. “But that has no place or relevance in the moment and the time of right now, because I am such a believer of taking a hot hand and using that and riding that as long as you can.”

If the offense had given Hill any support at all, the Twins might have spent the late hours gathered around television sets, monitoring the Mariners-Padres matchup for a possible clinch scenario. Instead, Hendricks also held Minnesota to three singles, and the only realistic scoring threats came in the first and ninth.

Byron Buxton singled to begin the game, moved to second on a groundout and took third on a wild pitch, but Miguel Sanó’s groundout ended the frame. The Twins also couldn’t take advantage of a pair of walks against Jeremy Jeffress in the ninth.