Because the opponent was the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom a little left-hander of stuff and style and guile named Harvey Haddix once pitched one of the most famous games in baseball history in 1959 -- 12 perfect innings before things finally went wrong for him against the Milwaukee Braves in the 13th -- they referenced Haddix a lot because of the way the Dodgers' Rich Hill pitched against the Pirates on Wednesday night.
This was the night when Hill lost a perfect game in the bottom of the ninth because L.A. third baseman Logan Forsythe made an error on a routine ground ball hit by Jordy Mercer. But Hill still got through the ninth with a no-hitter until Josh Harrison hit one out in the bottom of the 10th. So Hill, who has knocked around baseball for a long time, who is four years older than Haddix was against the Braves in 1959, did not end up with a perfect game or a no-hitter. Or a win. But for this one night in Pittsburgh, Rich Hill, out of Milton, Mass., was not just the big story in baseball. By the end of this game Hill had turned himself into a feature film, his own version of "For Love Of The Game."
Hill isn't at the end of the line the way Kevin Costner's Billy Chapel was in that movie, one of the best ever made about baseball (even though it needed more baseball). Hill wasn't pitching what was supposed to be a meaningless game at Yankee Stadium for a losing Tigers team, in what would turn out to be the last game of Chapel's career. No. Hill was pitching for the Dodgers, the best team in baseball this season, one on its way to perhaps the most regular-season wins any team has had since the Mariners won 116 games 16 years ago.
But there is some Billy Chapel in Rich Hill and his story. There is. Hill: Who started out in the big leagues with the Cubs in 2005, and has been all over the map since then, eight different teams in all, spending only a year with some of them. Hill: Who has survived shoulder problems and elbow problems and labrum surgery and Tommy John surgery but is again pitching like a star.
Now here he was in Pittsburgh on this night, pitching the game of his life, going into the ninth with 24 up and 24 down, trying to become the only Dodgers pitcher besides Sandy Koufax to ever pitch a perfect game. Vin Scully called Koufax's perfect game, of course, on the radio, one of the iconic moments of Scully's remarkable career.
And it was Scully, and his amazing baseball voice, that became a legitimate co-star to Kevin Costner in "For Love Of The Game" as he does play-by-play for what becomes Chapel's perfect game.
"After 19 years in the big leagues, 40-year-old Billy Chapel has trudged to the mound for over 4,000 innings," Scully says in the movie. "But tonight, he's pitching against time, he's pitching against the future, against age, against ending. Tonight, he will make the fateful walk to the loneliest spot in the world, the pitching mound at Yankee Stadium, to push the sun back into the sky and give us one more day of summer."
On Thursday morning, the great Mr. Scully wrote in an email, "Missed the game while returning home from a trip. But Harvey Haddix revisited!"
Haddix's best seasons, and that means some All-Star seasons, were behind him when he pitched the way he did against the Braves and Lew Burdette that night in '59. But he pitched those 12 perfect innings and then Don Hoak made an error and before long Joe Adcock hit one off the top of the fence that appeared to be a home run. Then Henry Aaron left the basepaths and was passed by Adcock, and the only run that counted for the Braves was the one scored by Felix Mantilla on Adcock's hit. Haddix's game, his 12 2/3 perfect innings, had ended up in a 1-0 loss. The way Hill ended up with a 1-0 loss to the Pirates on Wednesday night.
Harrison hit the 99th pitch the Pirates saw from Hill over Curtis Granderson and over the left-field wall. By then, Hill had struck out 10 batters and still hadn't walked anybody and the only baserunner had been Mercer. The play in the field to talk about -- movie moment -- before that one came from Chase Utley in the eighth. Josh Bell of the Pirates hit a line drive to Utley's left that seemed to be on its way into right. Only Utley laid out and somehow caught the ball, and before long Hill would take his own shot at perfection, at his own Sandy Koufax night, into the bottom of the ninth.
Hill had chased a perfect game last September, through seven innings in Miami against the Marlins. But Dave Roberts, the Dodgers manager, removed him after seven, saying that he was concerned that a blister was being raised on Hill's left index finger, and was worried about losing the pitcher for the playoffs (Clayton Kershaw had just returned to the team from injury). So Hill was gone after just 89 pitches.
"I feel sick to my stomach," Roberts said when that game was over, talking about his decision to take Hill out.
But baseball had tried to take Hill out, more than once, because of all the injuries. By 2015, he was even pitching for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League, as a way of trying to pitch himself back to the big leagues. But he did come back. And by last October, he was shutting out the Cubs for six innings in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
Now he is 9-5 this season. Now he again pitches the game of his life -- no chance that Roberts was going to take him out again. Utley made a sensational play. Forsythe messed up a routine play. Harrison took Hill out of PNC Park in the 10th. End of story.
"I try to keep everything as simple as possible and don't think of it as bigger than it is," Hill said when it was over. "We lost a ballgame. We have something bigger than any individual going on here. We're in it for the delayed gratification, not the instant gratification."
Here is what Dave Roberts told me on Thursday about what he saw from Hill the night before:
"He was in attack mode from the first pitch. The strike efficiency was incredible. His command with fastball and curveball were as good as I've seen."
What we all saw, what we were reminded of again, is how baseball still frames a moment like this again, how even what was a 0-0 game until Josh Harrison's home run can feel like a great novel. Or a great movie. With or without the kind of happy ending we got from Billy Chapel.
"Clear the mechanism" is how Chapel says he blocks out all the noise in the movie. Hill, who has shown everybody for a long time how much he loves the game, cleared out the Pirates all night in Pittsburgh until he didn't at the very end. All the shoulder and arm problems over the years. A blister last year when he had first shot at a perfect game. No blisters this time. Just an error in the ninth and a home run in the 10th. Imperfect perfect game. Nothing like the movies. Hill pitched better.