LOS ANGELES — Dave Roberts destroyed the Dodgers’ chances of winning the World Series by managing his pitching staff like a fan who won a contest. He shuffled through his relievers, trying to find the worst one for the worst moment, and succeeded in ways even he couldn’t have imagined. He lost Game 4, and probably the series, and along the way stubbed out the finest moment of Rich Hill’s career like a smoldering cigarette butt. Roberts’ thoroughness inspires awe.
Or maybe, just maybe, we don’t know everything. Could that be possible? Maybe the quickest and easiest summation, the one that proves most satisfying to the inner demons, isn’t always the one that holds up to the facts. There’s stuff happening outside the television screen, real human stuff that might not provide the same bilious catharsis but is probably worth mentioning anyway.
Hill had given up one hit through six innings of an eventual 9-6 Game 4 loss. He’d thrown a lot of pitches (91) but not an intolerable amount. None of the feared Boston hitters had reached second base. He was doing all those endearing Rich Hill things: swearing, sweating, talking to himself, lofting those parachute curveballs to the plate with a pillowy softness, hopping around after every pitch with that weird flinging leg that always makes it look as if he’s trying to recall every pitch back to his hand. The Dodgers were leading 4-0, the joint was jumpin’, and it looked for all the world like this World Series, once the sole province of the best team in baseball, was going to be tied at two games apiece heading into Sunday.
But Hill began the seventh by walking Xander Bogaerts, and amid an ecosystem that calls for starting pitchers to be merely functional conduits to a squadron of relievers, it wasn’t surprising to see lefty Scott Alexander’s tepid throwing in the Dodgers bullpen immediately conduct heat. Hill is 38 years old, and the Dodgers have a tendency to treat him like someone who will spontaneously combust if he’s faced with the prospect of getting the same hitters out three times in one game. Removing him from the game before trouble strikes seems almost reflexive.
But Hill was through the toughest part of the Boston lineup three times, and he was dealing in a way that should have been feted and honored by a team whose bullpen was down to beaks and claws after an 18-inning Game 3. But after he struck out Eduardo Nunez for the third time, that was deemed enough. Roberts bounded out to the mound and did that little double-clap thing he does when he’s pleased with the guy he’s removing, and he took the ball. Hill walked off to a valedictory cheer, which he acknowledged subtly and perhaps begrudgingly as befitting the brand, and all of it feels quaint now.
The historians will note its eerie similarity to Game 2 of the World Series last year against the Astros, when Hill was removed after four innings, one run and three hits. The Astros were privately overjoyed at the development, as the Red Sox were Saturday night. “We were excited down in the bullpen, for sure,” Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly said. “Rich Hill was absolutely on fire.”
With Hill gone, the Red Sox proceeded to score nine runs in the final three innings to take a 3-1 series lead. The conga line of failure began when Alexander walked the only batter he faced on four pitches, and continued when Ryan Madson gave up a three-run homer to pinch hitter Mitch Moreland, and from then on the game seemed to be an endless cackling taunt of everything Roberts holds dear.
But after the game, when given the polite but probably pointless chance to explain himself, Roberts said he and Hill had a conversation in the bottom of the sixth that began with Roberts asking his 38-year-old starter how he was feeling and Hill responding with a less than emphatic answer.
“Keep an eye on me,” Hill said at the moment and later confirmed. “I’m going to give it everything I have, but let’s go hitter to hitter. Just keep an eye on me.”
Which caused everyone in the room listening to Roberts to pause for a second, and perhaps examine their souls. The easy story — Roberts as incompetent and quite possibly traitorous — wasn’t going to last through deadline. And amid the quiet of penitence, Roberts was asked if it was rare for Hill to issue such a potentially dire warning.
“I’ve never heard it,” Roberts said. “You’re talking about a World Series game where there’s no margin to that point. There’s a lot of emotion, intensity, effort, focus — he did everything to put us in position to win a baseball game.”
Those facts don’t absolve Roberts. Reasonable people could assume “keep an eye on me” with a four-run lead under Saturday night’s conditions should be interpreted as, “Let me at least give up a run before you take the ball.” Managers talk about getting 27 outs, and it was pretty obvious that Hill was the best bet to get at least two or three more of them. And there’s a valid argument to be made that Madson, who has allowed seven inherited runners to score in four games, was not the man to entrust with the Game 4 legacy of Rich Hill.
But as it turns out, a baseball game only looks like a television show. Instead of smiling anchors throwing red meat at your basest instincts, a baseball game is an unpredictable endeavor played by sentient beings whose genius and artistry and fallibility all have backstories that shade more toward the gray than the black and the white.
It doesn’t mean that Roberts’ decisions didn’t turn out poorly, or that they didn’t — in the end — cost the Dodgers their last best chance of getting back into this World Series. It doesn’t mean that Rich Hill didn’t deserve to attach a few more outs to his name before heading off into the night. It just means that we don’t know everything, and we never will, which makes everything else, as Roberts himself might say, simply one man’s opinion.
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