Mets' move for Rich Hill has team primed for big finish to season

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Rich Hill Mets debut
Rich Hill Mets debut

Chalk one up for the Mets’ brass, two days after moving quickly on Friday to fill a desperate need for starting pitching when the Tampa Bay Rays made Rich Hill available.

Now the trick is for Luis Rojas to know just how much leash to give the veteran left-hander. Expect it to be a little shorter next time.

Hill was a welcome sight for the Mets, to be sure, making his debut for them at Citi Field on Sunday and working his magic over five scoreless innings while relying primarily on his tantalizingly slow, 69-mph curve.

And it’s hard to say definitively that Rojas made a mistake in allowing Hill to load the bases with no outs in the sixth inning, considering he had thrown only 49 pitches to that point.

It’s just that at this stage of Hill’s career, as a 41-year old soft-tosser who is always walking a tightrope -- especially after hitters have had a couple of looks at him -- it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.

Fortunately for the Mets, the sorrow was only temporary as they rallied from a 3-1 deficit with a stirring four-run rally in the bottom of the sixth that had a big crowd rocking, and then held on to defeat the Jays, 5-4.

In doing so, they won two of three against Toronto to make it five of their last seven games overall, and they seem to be awakening offensively, especially with Pete Alonso swinging a hot bat, going deep on Sunday for his fifth home run since winning the Home Run Derby at the All-Star break.

Furthermore, with Jacob deGrom throwing off a mound on Sunday and apparently making progress toward returning, and Carlos Carrasco making a strong rehab start Sunday, the Mets might have the best possible pitching help on the way relatively soon.

Jul 7, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) walks off the field after pitching the top of the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Citi Field.
Jul 7, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) walks off the field after pitching the top of the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Citi Field.

Still, with a doubleheader on Monday, they don’t have enough pitching to go around at the moment, and while they’ll no doubt be looking to add more pitching as Friday’s trade deadline approaches, acquiring Hill was a significant move.

Put it this way: The Mets sure didn’t have anyone else to pitch Sunday who could have held that explosive Toronto lineup in check for five innings.

To that end, Hill was nothing short of a magician in using his curve to keep the Blue Jays’ hitters off balance enough to get a lot of fly balls and pop ups.

And while he makes you wonder how he does it at times, as that curve seems to float across the plate, at this point it’s obviously not a fluke as Hill creates enough deception to keep big league hitters from barreling it with consistency.

“I have to trust my ability to throw that pitch,” Hill said afterward. “I’ve learned that over the years.”

In recent weeks, in fact, Hill had struggled a bit with the Rays, he said partly because he started experimenting with different pitches.

“I kind of stayed away from (the curve) a little bit,” he said. “I need to stay with my meat-and-potatoes -- the four-seam fastball and the curve. I’m going to attack and get the hitters to swing the bats. If I do that, the aggressiveness will take care of a lot of things.”

Meaning that to some degree, Hill counts on hitters being unable to resist hacking away at that slow curve, often getting themselves out with their impatience.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Rojas said after the game. “He’s got a good feel for getting guys out with contact.”

Jul 25, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets pitcher Rich Hill (14) pitches in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citi Field.
Jul 25, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets pitcher Rich Hill (14) pitches in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citi Field.

At Hill’s age, there is always reason to wonder how much he has left, just as there is reason to be wary about trading with the savvy Tampa front office. Yet baseball people believe the Rays only traded Hill because they needed to save some money where they could after taking on the contract of newly-acquired Nelson Cruz.

“He can still pitch effectively,” one long-time scout told me after Sunday’s game. “But you have to be ready to get him out of there quickly when he gets to a certain point.

“I don’t think the whole third-time-around-the-lineup thing should be a hard-and-fast rule for starting pitchers, but you really don’t want guys getting a third look at Hill. Especially a lineup as dangerous as Toronto’s.”

It’s not as if Rojas doesn’t know that, of course. Afterward he said he considered pinch-hitting for Hill in the bottom of the fifth, with runners on first and second and two outs, but essentially said the Mets’ current pitching needs superseded such a possibility.

Between the doubleheader on Monday and Hill’s crazy-low total of 49 pitches at that point, Rojas decided that sticking with the lefty made the most sense.

In retrospect, the specter of George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Marcus Semien coming to the plate in the sixth probably should have convinced the manager it was time to go to the pen in a 1-0 game.

And sure enough, a hit-by-pitch (on a 3-2 count), a rocket off the wall in right-center, and another walk loaded the bases. When Seth Lugo couldn’t bail out Hill, the Jays suddenly led 3-1 and it looked like staying with the lefty might prove costly.

Instead, the Mets showed the grit that has defined their season, rallying in the bottom of the inning for what turned out to be a feel-good win, with the Citi Field crowd erupting in the ninth as Edwin Diaz struck out Bo Bichette to end the game.

All of which made Hill’s debut a rousing success and reason to believe he can help the Mets keep that starting rotation afloat. As long as his leash isn’t too long.

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