43-year-old Hill a mentor -- and a strikeout threat

Lefty racks up seven K's vs. Reds in first start of season No. 19

April 2nd, 2023

CINCINNATI -- It wasn’t the debut that wanted, but it was a solid debut nonetheless.

Hill shook off a rocky first inning and delivered a fine opening to the 2023 season, allowing three runs across five innings with seven strikeouts as the Pirates lost 6-2 to the Reds on Saturday at Great American Ball Park.

“He was really effective,” said manager Derek Shelton. “He had a rough first inning. He gave up the two home runs, but he bounced back and kept us in the game and did a really good job of mixing and matching against a predominantly right-handed lineup. He made two bad pitches early, but I thought he threw the ball pretty well.”

Hill began his Pirates tenure by allowing a home run to the very first batter he faced, as Jonathan India sent a 2-1 fastball into the left-field bleachers. Four batters later, Kevin Newman, who the Pirates traded to the Reds this offseason, homered in his first plate appearance with Cincinnati, launching a two-run blast that clanged off the banner of the second-deck.

“We missed,” Hill said of Newman’s home run. “It was a little bit of a pulled fastball, and he did a good job of putting the bat on the ball.”

But from there, Hill locked in, consistently executing his four-seam fastball and curve. He retired the side in the second inning, then did so again in the third. He walked a batter each in the fourth and fifth, but escaped those innings unscathed.

Hill recorded the 1,300th strikeout of his career, punching out TJ Friedl with a fastball at the top of the zone, but emphasized that wins, not milestones, are his overriding priority.

“I understand that milestones happen, but that’s an individual goal, and that’s not why I’m here,” Hill said. “I’m here for this group and for Pittsburgh. I want us to win.”

That team-centric mentality illustrates the incalculable value that Hill provides.

With his start against Cincinnati, the 43-year-old has officially played in his 19th Major League season. There isn’t much Hill hasn’t experienced, hasn’t navigated or seen. He even pitched against Reds manager David Bell at the tail end of Bell’s career. Most of Hill’s rotation mates, meanwhile -- namely Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras and Johan Oviedo -- are still in the early stages of their careers. Hill remains capable of providing quality innings, but his willingness to invest in the next generation is where his intangible value lies.

“What really stands out is when we were at Pirate City early on [during Spring Training], him watching bullpens and engaging in conversations with Mitch, [JT] Brubaker, Oviedo and Contreras,” Shelton said. “Just taking the time to do that, yeah, you don’t pitch for this long and have as solid of a reputation as he has if you don’t invest in it. And we’ve really seen him invest.”

“It’s amazing, really,” Bell said. “It really is, because that was a long time ago, and it feels like a long time ago. It just says so much about Rich. I don’t know Rich, but I’ve always admired what he’s done from a distance. To not only play that long, but be really successful -- very, very few players can play that long. A guy I played with, Jamie Moyer, comes to mind. Maybe it helps a little bit when you’re left-handed and know how to get outs. You’re able to stick around a little bit longer.”

While Hill completed innings No. 1260 to 1264 of his career, Jose Hernandez completed his first, pitching a scoreless eighth inning in his Major League debut.

"I can't explain the emotions that I felt through the game. It feels good to get the first one out of the way,” Hernandez said through team interpreter Stephen Morales.