LOS ANGELES -- Fourteen months ago, Rich Hill was a 35-year-old pitching for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. Tonight, he will pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
How a left-hander who throws 90 mph got from there to here is one of those complicated stories that makes baseball so mysterious and great. Hill's opponent, Jake Arrieta, has a story of his own, having evolved from an underachieving Oriole to a Cy Young Award-winning Cub. But this is a story about Hill, and here's a theory as good as any to explain his renaissance as a Major League pitcher more than worthy of a postseason start: It's a matter of mechanics.
"I think of my throwing motion like a whip," Hill said. "It goes out, hits its target and comes back. It is a recoil."
It is a dance, as much as a delivery. Hill's whip does not only consist of his arm, but his whole body; his torso recoiling as the pitch reaches the plate and his drive leg swinging around. It's a pitching pirouette.
And it is effective.
After parts of 10 seasons with the Cubs, Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Angels and Yankees, Hill opted out of a Triple-A deal with the Nationals last June and went to independent ball with the Ducks, where Hill struck out 14 batters over six innings in one August start and signed a Minor League contract with the Red Sox. Four stellar starts in the Majors last September earned Hill a $6 million contract for 2016 with the A's, and he rewarded that investment by going 9-3 with a 2.25 ERA in 14 starts to begin this season.
Hill was on the disabled list with a blister issue when the injury-plagued Dodgers traded for him and nursed Hill back to health. He finished 2016 with a 2.12 ERA in 20 starts between Oakland and L.A., striking out better than 10 batters per inning and producing a .195/.269/.261 slash line from opposing hitters.
"If you go back to my starts with the Cubs, you'll see the arm recoil, but not the leg," he said of his 4.37 ERA over parts of four seasons from 2005-08. "I can't answer if it's distracting to the hitter. Could be, but I'm really just trying to create that whip.
"It's funny, I can recall when I was with the Cubs, pitching coaches trying to get me to whip. It's tough when you're younger, you don't know what's best in certain times. Obviously, when we get older we find what works for you and you don't sway from that at all. You just stay very consistent with what makes you successful."
Now Hill is facing a new challenge. "Blister" is a rather mundane way to describe what at times has been an open wound on the middle fingertip of his pitching hand, layer upon layer of skin pulled away every time he takes the mound.
Between each start, Hill and the Dodgers do everything they can -- yes, he even tried the Moises Alou method -- to get Hill into pitching shape. And in many starts, there comes a point when he can't pitch anymore. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts marveled at the way Hill has managed his outings from pitch to pitch, rather than worrying whether his finger would give at pitch No. 75 or pitch No. 100, or not at all.
"I think that for him it's, 'When it goes, it goes,'" Roberts said. "But he's not going to spend any energy worrying about when and if."
In Game 2 of the NL Division Series against the Nationals, Hill became the oldest Dodger to start a postseason game since 40-year-old Greg Maddux in '06. Hill started again in Game 5 but did not figure into the Dodgers' thrilling, come-from-behind win. He contributed a total of seven innings in those games, which were Hill's first postseason appearances since he started Game 3 of the '07 NLDS for the Cubs against the D-backs.
It's a happy coincidence, Hill said, that his NLCS debut will come against the team that ushered him to the Major Leagues as a 25-year-old in 2005.
"Everybody has a story; everybody has background to how they got to this point," Hill said. "And sure, when I look back to going through the Minor Leagues, the time and the effort that was put in by those coaches to make me the player that I am today … there is definitely a tie there that will last throughout my life."
That life has changed over the past year and a half, though Hill has not had the time to think much about it. He did speak Monday of the 6 a.m. flights in independent ball and the dugouts so sparse that the restroom consisted of a bucket in the corner.
But that reflection will have to wait. Hill and the Dodgers have work to do.
"I always talk about the moment and staying in the moment and trying to make the most of the time that we have and be as productive with the time that we have at that moment," Hill said. "Every game is its own moment. Every pitch is its own moment. So it's really taking that cliche of pitch-to-pitch process, that's really what I've been able to do.
"That started in Long Island when I was in independent ball, [and I] carried over with that mindset every single opportunity that I've had. Every single outing that I've had. Not getting outside of that is what I believe has made me successful."
Adam McCalvy has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001. MLB.com reporter Ken Gurnick contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.