What Rich Hill has been doing for the Rays was working pretty well, as his May American League Pitcher of the Month award showed.
His Saturday start against the Rangers, throwing five dominant innings in the 3-0 win, featured more of the same. And something more.
The age-defying 41-year-old decided, for the first time this season, to add a changeup to his usual mix of tempting fastballs and tantalizing sweeping curves. He worked on it a bit in his last bullpen session, then threw it five times Saturday in Arlington, Texas, getting a couple of welcomed ground ball outs.
“I like to be creative out there, and if I feel that it’s the right time to throw it, I’ll throw it. … It’s just a feel. It’s like, ‘Oh, hey, let’s, you know, change up,’ ” Hill said. “There’s just so many things that I love about pitching. … Being able to control the timing and changing speeds. So changing speeds changes the bat speed, and being able to do that is something that is part of the craft that I really love.”
Hill certainly did his part, allowing only a walk to No. 2 Adolis Garcia, who was erased on what manager Kevin Cash called “a magic play” by catcher Mike Zunino, in the first three innings, just two hits for the five.
Over his last seven starts, Hill has given up three total runs, going 4-1 with a 0.68 ERA and .143 opponents average.
“Rich was really, really good again,” Cash said. “The way he has been on this run of suppressing scoring has been really impressive.”
The only question was why Cash took him out after five innings since he had thrown only 59 pitches, with outfielder Manuel Margot among those surprised.
Cash said, in essence, that Hill had done his job in going through the Rangers order twice. With only a 2-0 lead and a fully rested bullpen, he felt better about changing the look, which he did by using side-arming right-hander Ryan Thompson, lefty Jeffrey Springs, then fireballers Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo to get the 12 remaining outs.
Hill said that he wanted to stay in, but also that he gets it. “Look, I want to win a World Series,” he said. “Everybody wants to win a World Series in that locker room. Whichever way that path takes us, or however that direction is to get us in that position, is what we’re trying to do.
“So obviously want to stay in the game and continue to keep pitching, but I’m also here to understand the way the standard operating procedure is.”
Also relatively standard, at least during the 18-4 run that carried the Rays to the 60-game mark with an AL-best 37-23 record, has been dazzling defense, aggressive baserunning and just enough clutch hitting.
Saturday, they made a half-dozen noteworthy plays, including Zunino with an Andrei Vasilevskiy-like reaction to a bounced pitch, then firing to nab Garcia at second; Mike Brosseau with a back-handed grab at third and strong throw; Margot with a running/sliding catch in right; Taylor Walls starting a double play.
“Just one of our strengths, defense,” said Margot via team interpreter Manny Navarro.
The Rays got two runs in the first inning when Margot, moved to the top of the order for the first time to try to spark the lineup against lefty starter Kolby Allard, did just that. He drew a five-pitch walk, the went aggressively from first to third when Yandy Diaz singled hard to center, with Diaz alertly moving up to second on the throw.
That all mattered as Austin Meadows delivered a single to center, increasing his RBI total to 46, tops on the team and among the league leaders. Margot added a homer in the eighth for the extra cushion.
“Overall,” Hill said, “it was a great game.”
Nothing changed there.
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