'Rich Hill Game' turns in Pirates' favor

April 10th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- Whenever the Pirates recorded their first hit, backup catcher Chris Stewart would celebrate with a rallying cry: “Nobody no-hits the Pirates!” Then he’d quietly amend his proclamation: “Except for Max Scherzer that one time. And Homer Bailey that one time.”

Every game, the rest of the Pirates dugout would wait for Stewart’s statement. On Aug. 23, 2017, they had to wait nine full innings before made history with the Pirates’ first hit.

That night at PNC Park, Dodgers left-hander was perfect for eight innings. He was unhittable for nine innings. Then Harrison led off the 10th against Hill by smacking a home run over the left-field fence, becoming the first player to ever break up a no-hitter with an extra-inning, walk-off homer.

That game, still known among its participants as “The Rich Hill Game” even though Hill suffered one of the least-deserved losses of all time.

“Off the bat, when you see it go high enough and you see it hooking, you’re like, ‘That’s going to go out. It’s going to be a foul ball or it’s going to go out,’” Williams said. “We all freaked out. We’re running to home plate like, ‘Holy cow, this actually just happened. We actually just walked off on Rich Hill, who just dominated us.’”

Hill was truly masterful in that game. He struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk. He needed only 98 pitches to complete nine innings without allowing a hit. Before Harrison’s homer, the only batter who reached did so on an error by third baseman Logan Forsythe. The Pirates weren’t so much wondering if they could get to the veteran lefty, but how much longer he would keep pitching.

When Hill walked off the mound with a 1-0 loss, seemingly everyone in the Dodgers clubhouse was devastated for him. Everyone, that is, except for Hill himself.

"If I said, 'That's baseball,' it's cliché, but that's the way the game is,” Hill said afterward. “That's why it's fun.”

And it’s what keeps us watching, waiting to see something we’ve never seen before and might never see again. Hill was the first pitcher since Lefty Leifield of the 1906 Pirates to lose a game with at least nine innings pitched, one hit or less and zero walks, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. His remarkable effort will also be linked to that of the Pirates’ Harvey Haddix, who carried a perfect game into the 13th inning before losing to the Braves in 1959.

Before the game, then-Pirates manager Clint Hurdle agreed that Hill’s story -- that of a journeyman pitcher who bounced around the league for a decade, lost an infant son, wound up playing in an independent league then resurrected his career -- was like something out of a movie. The Pirates seemingly ruined one of the best scenes.

"It's still a pretty good part of the movie," Hurdle said that night. "I can't imagine there's any dishonor walking off the field giving up one run on one hit.”

Harrison’s homer wasn’t just statistically unlikely because of the way Hill was pitching, either. According to Statcast, Harrison's homer had an exit velocity of 94 mph and a launch angle of 33 degrees as it traveled a projected 347 feet; similarly hit batted balls went for a home run less than 10 percent of the time that season, and only 2.5 percent of homers that year were hit less than 350 feet.

"I was hoping for it," Harrison said after the game. "I knew I didn't get it all, but I knew I got enough."

Williams delivered a bit of baseball philosophy in the immediate aftermath of the game, after admitting that he couldn’t wrap his mind around what had just transpired.

“It’s insane how baseball works,” the rookie right-hander said at the time. “Baseball sucks at times. Baseball’s weird. It’s designed to break your heart. I’m so glad we hit the walk-off homer.”

Williams recently rewatched the entire game, the first time he’s done so since he pitched in it. He worked eight gritty innings, giving up seven hits and four walks while striking out five. He induced two double plays to end the fifth and sixth innings. Shortstop Jordy Mercer made two big plays in the field as well.

“It wasn’t impressive. It’s eight zeros, but it’s not eight innings, 15 punchouts, one walk. There’s other games that I thought were better than that,” Williams said earlier this week. “But the circumstances of what happened and how we won, how this game is going to be remembered for a long time, I’m grateful that I was a part of it.”